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From the Inside

Notes from a small university

Estimated read time: 8 minutes

It’s almost time for me to sign off as The Native’s latest From the Inside blogger, but before I go I wanted to share some of the things I’ve learned while working at a small university.

I manage social media for York St John University and we have roughly 6500 students, putting us at around 120th of 160 universities in the UK – based on our size. Statistically that means most of you reading this will be from substantially bigger institutions, so here’s a few perspectives from the other side!

Size isn’t everything

Ah, rankings. Don’t we love them? Higher education is full of rankings now (it seems like there’s a new one every week) and a lot of them boast some seriously flawed metrics, often just using whichever stats are easiest to measure.

It’s a fact that having a huge following and big student numbers can give you a serious boost in a lot of the league tables, while at the other end of the scale some of us small universities know it’s unlikely we will ever break into those upper echelons.

But, much like in other areas of life (😉), size isn’t all that matters.

Being restricted to a smaller audience has shown me new ways of measuring success based on what works for us and our students. The balance of our audience demographics, students becoming active contributors to our social media channels, and even knowing that people feel comfortable asking us silly questions about ghosts on Instagram – these are much better indicators of how our channels are performing, and they’re a better use of my time than spending hours trying to jump on trending hashtags just to increase our followers.

Of course it’s nice to look at a report and see giant numbers, but it’s much more satisfying to free yourself from the pressure of constant growth of followers (or even the holy grail engagement rate stat) and really focus on your unique measures of success.

Don’t take anything for granted

The most practical lesson I have learned in my time at a small institution is the value of maximising our content.

While some universities might have tens of thousands of students ready to tag them in gorgeous Instagram shots of campus and provide their social teams with a constant stream of user-generated content, we can’t always rely on that.

The user-generated content we do have is sporadic and usually concentrated on a few key weeks of term, so when that time comes around I make the most of it – cross-posting and sharing as much as possible to increase that reach.

When you are blessed with great content from your community, don’t take it for granted and don’t miss the opportunity to use it effectively.

Variety is the spice of life

It’s a cringeworthy saying, but it’s true! Working in a small institution means working in small teams and therefore more responsibilities crammed into each role.

Alongside social media, I also work on York St John’s CRM system, data collection, conversion campaigns, and student blog, so every day is completely different. Although sometimes it’s a challenge to devote enough time to each part of my role, the experience of working with so many different teams and covering multiple aspects of student communications gives me far more insight into the full student journey than I might have if I focused on just one element of my job.

You might work in a more specialised role where it’s not a necessity for you to learn all the details of what other teams do, but I would urge you to try it out sometime! Not only does it keep your job varied, it helps you appreciate how hard your colleagues work and also throws up lots of new ideas that might never have occurred to you otherwise.

Every student matters

I’m pretty sure that every education institution in the country has something in their strategy and values about treating every student as an individual, ‘as a name, not just a number’! But working in a small university has given me a much better understanding of *why* it’s important that we respect our students this way.

It’s easy for me to get to know a large proportion of our students because our numbers are small – and what that’s shown me is that every student – every single one! – is so interesting. The passion, creativity, and breadth of interests and stories they have honestly astonishes me, and on a small campus I get to see them engaging with their peers and with our staff throughout their whole university career.

The experience of knowing hundreds of students as individuals rather than being swamped by a crowd of thousands serves as an ongoing reminder that we owe it to our students to not succumb to dumb stereotypes about ‘lazy’ Gen Z but instead to put them at a forefront of everything we do – and actually live up to those aspirational strategic values.

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Every institutions has its own quirks and challenges, and ultimately our student numbers are just one factor in how we work. Regardless of our size or league table position, we all have great stories to tell and a responsibility to help our students make the decisions best for them.

That’s about all from me, but I hope my From the Inside columns have provided you with some food for thought over the past few weeks! A big thanks to Dave and The Native for hosting me and thanks to everyone who has responded to and shared my ramblings.

Hopefully this won’t be the last time you’ll ever see me on The Native (if they’ll let me back), but in the meantime you can always find me on Twitter @katyduddell and lurking about the #HESM hashtag – see you there!

*If you’d like to be a future From the Inside columnist then please get in touch!*

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