And, that’s it folks…

I’m back in the UK. How did that happen so quickly?!

Although it feels like I have been away for ages, I can’t quite believe that I am now home and my little Australian escapade has come to a close. However, far from being ‘it’, this is where the hard work really begins. Not just in finding the time to digest and write up my findings as the day job inevitably encroaches both on my time and headspace, but to maintain the sense of energy and enthusiasm that I always feel when I have the chance to truly ‘think into’ the possibilities in this area.

What I know instinctively (and has been evidenced by this trip) is that the opportunity here is huge. If we can develop a student / young alumni programme that really talks to the needs of our audience and meets the University’s strategic needs then we will both enhance the connection we have with our newest graduates and make Alumni Relations a more prominent and important function across the institution.

I have lots of thinking still to do however, my initial summations would be an effective student / young alumni programme, which delivers increased engagement and strategic value to an institution, needs to:

1. BE PRESENT – particularly from a student perspective; we need to be where students are. It is no longer good enough simply to expect students to come to us, to attend our initiatives or imagine that they will be inherently interested. Immediate gratification is all around us and, so often now, expected. Consequently, strong visibility in the right places, situations and events will be critical in terms of getting the value of the alumni network better known.

2. BE RELEVANT – this really goes hand in hand with the point above. Let’s focus more on what students and young alumni need and want to hear rather than what we want to tell them (something that I think that we have been guilty of at Bham in the past). Resonance comes from relevance; we will have a much greater impact if we demonstrate the value of the alumni community through meeting specific requirements. This is a much more powerful approach than simply informing students / young alumni / internal colleagues about how important alumni relations is. We must focus on delivery rather than discussion.

3. BE CLEAR – I believe nearly all humans like and respond well to clarity. In an area that is often not well understood, I believe clarity will be the critical factor in raising awareness of alumni relations. Our student / young alumni programme needs to be lean, focused and have a clear and transparent sense of purpose. We need to be able to easily articulate precisely what our alumni network (not our office) can offer students and young alumni and also have a real sense of clarity on what we are asking from our graduates in return i.e. defined range of volunteer opportunities, advice etc. Essentially we need to ask more and give more (in a relevant, present and defined way).

Across the Universities that I have visited I have seen practices, programmes and attitudes that fit with some or all of the above (many of which feature somewhere within this blog). It has been a brilliant opportunity to identify and highlight areas of best practice and see how these vary both by institution and cultural context. I will drill down further into these examples through my report however, this gives you a sneak peak of my conclusions as I spend some time reflecting here in seat 71K!

Finally, I am often told I say ‘Thank You’ too much; I am not convinced this is actually possible but either way I will keep this bit brief. MASSIVE thanks to U21, the University of Birmingham and the the Universities of Virginia, Melbourne, New South Wales and Queensland for hosting me so generously and comprehensively. Every second that I have spent on this project has been shrouded with a sense of deep gratitude and a level of personal responsibility to ensure it produces valuable outcomes and potential ongoing collaborations. I am committed to ensuring this happens and look forward to exploring the possibilities as I return to the UK. If you are interested in finding out more or ‘joining the party’ then please do contact me directly (j.e.bressington@bham.ac.uk or +44 (0)121 414 8432). I’d love to hear from you!

Inspiring the next UQ generation

As part of my last day in sunny St Lucia, I spent some time discussing how UQ works with alumni and current students to inspire students to study at the University of Queensland. I really believe that alumni and current students are a University’s greatest asset when encouraging prospective students to attend an institution. Even in an age where Universities are employing increasingly sophisticated marketing and conversion campaigns, word of mouth is still an extremely powerful tool.

As I mentioned earlier in the week, UQ have a history of using alumni informally to support international recruitment and are looking to formalise this with the development of an ‘Alumni Ambassador’ scheme not dissimilar to the one that we run with our MBA graduates at Birmingham Business School. They are also about to launch a competition encouraging alumni to record short videos offering advice to prospective students based on how their careers have developed since leaving UQ. The stakes for quality participation are high on this one with a substantial prize for the winning contribution – if you are an international alum this will equate to a return flight to Brisbane! The aim is that the competition will generate a wealth of organic and graduate-led content that will form the basis of an authentic social media based marketing and conversion campaign.

I also spent some time with colleagues from the Faculty of Science and learnt about a couple of other interesting initiatives that connect alumni and students, with the ultimate aim of supporting student recruitment. UQ run a ‘UQ Science Ambassadors‘ programme for students in Y11 and Y12. This scheme is focused on increasing the profile of science as a discipline and involves local Secondary Schools nominating a small number of their highest achieving students to participate in the programme. Once appointed, the ambassadors are offered resources, recognition and are given priority invitations to science based events. The idea is that they then take this message back to their School community and promote the benefits of following a degree path in science on a peer to peer basis. This is not only a great programme in terms of raising young people’s interest in Science but as it has now been running for a number of years, it is also a great opportunity to engage with current students and graduates who have previously been involved.

Students do not have to apply to UQ to become a ‘Science Ambassador’ however, with a strong regional catchment area, the Faculty now has a growing number of alumni who started their relationship with the University (prior to even applying!) as a ‘Science Ambassador’. Consequently, they are now making a concerted effort to connect these individuals with the latest cohort of ambassadors e.g. at a welcome event, as informal mentors etc. This helps to raise the aspirations of the ambassadors as it offers them direct contact with individuals who are just ahead of them in their educational pathway (current students) and with those who have progressed into relevant careers (recent graduates). It also encourages a culture of ‘paying it forward’ for students and younger alumni.

UQ also run an event called ‘Careers that Shape the World‘. This is another initiative aimed at Y11 and Y12 pupils to help them make informed choices about their subject of study at University. The programme is pretty comprehensive and offers very applied advice as all of the speakers are alumni. This is a great volunteer opportunity for alumni and supports general profile raising of UQ as well as being indirectly linked to the student recruitment aims of the institution. Whilst the main aim of the day is to enlighten students about their degree choices, by holding the event on the lovely St Lucia campus and exposing the participants to successful UQ alumni, it is hoped that this will encourage them to consider UQ as an option for their UG studies.

Personally, I like the way in which UQ have focused on asking alumni to offer their views from a careers perspective when supporting student recruitment activity. Employability is a big concern for students / parents and as alumni have already navigated the employment market, this remains the main differentiator between advice offered by current students and young alumni. By emphasising how important this viewpoint is in the decision making process, alumni are clear on the value that they can bring to the University through volunteering their advice, time and practical support. A great example of having clarity in your ‘ask’, meeting the wants and needs of your stakeholders, whilst directly delivering against one of the University’s key strategic objectives.

One More Day…

One more day. This fills me with sadness and excitement in equal measure.

Almost 6 weeks is a long time to be away from home and whilst I have had the most amazing time, I am now super excited about the thought of seeing family, friends and (light of my life) Reginald Percival Bressington – my adorable Border Terrier for those that don’t know me! ;) However, I also feel a bit sad that this amazing adventure is coming to a close. As I said at the end of my time at UVa and Melbourne, I feel immensely fortunate to have been given this opportunity and have loved the chance to immerse myself wholeheartedly into the life and culture of the institutions that I have visited.

I really believe that when life throws you an opportunity, you grab it, run with it and then are obliged to ‘pay it forward’. Not dissimilar to some of the ideas that are coming out of my project! I feel proud to say that I think I am about 90% there on this one. The project does not stop here; whilst I am now firmly on the path back to Brum, I really hope that my final report will be a valuable tool not only for colleagues at UoB but also for the host institutions that have been so generous with their time and expertise. I fully intend to dedicate time to getting my report written, disseminated and and also to digest all that I have seen, heard and felt within my specific area of research and beyond.

As I said, this all feels a bit final given that I still have ‘one more day’ however, it really is just a shameless excuse to have a picture of Reginald on my blog.

Reginald

Final reflections soon…probably penned from a plane somewhere between Brisbane and Heathrow.

New demands. New solutions.

Over the last few days I have been doing the equivalent of the ‘Grand Tour’ around UQ. As well as time spent with the central Advancement Team, I have also met with colleagues working across Fundraising and Alumni Relations in a number of UQ’s faculties and other central services. As I mentioned in my first post, UQ is big and I mean BIG! Not only in terms of scale (I have visited two of the four main campuses) but also in sheer size with more than 46k students at any one time. That is around 30 / 40% bigger than Birmingham, however, the number of people that they have working in the Advancement area is not necessarily commensurate with the size of the job they have in hand.

However, whilst they might not have the resourcing levels that they would like, what they do have is passion and great ideas – and lots of it / them. I have been impressed by the energy and enthusiasm that I have felt from colleagues I have met across the campus. There is a real sense of knowing that there is huge potential, particularly in the areas of student engagement and young alumni programmes, and a strong desire to realise this. Whilst it may not always be possible to do that across the board (at UQ’s size, the time, resources and levels of ‘buy in’ to do this are challenging to say the least), their hub and spoke model means that they certainly have the potential to offer some very tailored initiatives for groups of their alumni and students.

Whether this is through the Recruitment Team working with young alumni volunteers to offer advice at international recruitment events; the Business School’s MBA alumni mentoring programme; the Faculty of Business, Economics and Law looking to develop more holistic alumni events so that they can increase their engagement with young alumni who may be more family focused or through the Health faculty investing in a student internship programme with a view to increasing class cohesion and student engagement. It is clear that the programmes and initiatives that are having the greatest impact are the ones that match the needs of the Faculty or Administrative Unit most closely with the strengths and demands of their alumni / student communities. By keeping an open dialogue with the central team they also have the potential to lever some of the University wide activity for the good of their faculty or strategic area e.g. ensuring their alumni / students are represented in the ‘Future Leader’s’ programme, are nominated for Alumni of the Year awards etc.

There are loads of examples that I could cite, however, I was particularly taken with a recent initiative in the Business School, which has resulted in the development of the UQ Careers and Recruitment Centre. This relatively new and innovative Centre plays a dual role – it helps students and alumni to find opportunities and manage their career and it also provides employers with access to some of the brightest talent in Australia by connecting them with graduates from UQ. Essentially the service is more closely aligned to a Recruitment Agency as opposed to a traditional University Careers Advice Centre. This is a great example of being very responsive to demand. Of course, students need general advice in terms of their career prospects however, are they more likely to remember those that offered them a gentle steer or those that offered them a tangible opportunity that met their specific need at a defined moment in time e.g. a job or placement offer?

My feeling is that it would be the latter and I think that this is something that we can learn from in Alumni Relations. If we focus more on delivering against students’ specific needs and less on informing the student community about how valuable it will be to remain in contact with us and each other, then I think that we will be much more successful in raising awareness of the value of alumni support overall. This sounds simple but sadly, I really don’t think it is otherwise we would all be doing it 100% of the time! What I do believe however is, with the right infrastructure, it is much easier to identify those tangible needs and gaps at a more devolved level e.g. faculty, school, department etc. If we can identify some specific needs and respond to them effectively e.g. in areas of employability, student experience etc. this may actually start to negate the need for mass student ‘awareness raising’ campaigns, which can be costly, unwieldy and often notoriously difficult to measure in terms of impact.

Giving UQ students an ‘Advantage’.

So, if yesterday’s blog was focused on UQ’s Young Alumni ‘Main Feature’ then today, I bring you the ‘Prequel’ - direct from the studio of the UQ Advantage Office!

The UQ Advantage Award has been designed to encourage and recognise student participation in extra-curricular activities, which enable personal and professional development and have a positive impact on the UQ community. From spending time with the UQ Advantage team today, the award seems to offer the UQ student community a programme that is dynamic, substantial and truly aspirational.  

The award is entirely focussed on co-curricular activities i.e. only activity outside of the curriculum can be included and it is designed to be manageable but challenging to achieve over three years. It therefore, attracts participation from some of UQ’s highest achieving students and, it is testament to the quality of the students engaged that some have already achieved the 3 year award in the two years it has been running! An interesting element of the programme however, is that all of the activity delivered is available to all of the students that register (currently over 3000 and counting); many will participate without the intention of ever meeting all of the criteria required to receive the full UQ Advantage Award. 

The programme is a great asset for UQ. From a student recruitment perspective, it offers real, tangible stories of student achievement and so is a great way of promoting the successes of UQ students. The University also runs a ‘Young Achievers Programme‘ which aims to encourage Year 11 and 12 students with the greatest potential to apply to UQ, irrespective of their background. This is a natural forerunner to participation in the UQ Advantage Award and, while it is no means a pre-requisite, it can be a good indicator of students that might be interested in participating once they start their studies. The award also helps to build aspiration right across the student community; it is a clear and desirable marker of achievement and also helps to promote the wealth of opportunities available to students interested in developing their leadership skills.

From an alumni perspective, the stretching nature of the criteria ensures that it offers a clear signpost to the students that are likely to be the highest achievers (and ideal ‘Future Leaders’ candidates). It also helps to generates a wealth of data on the future graduate community e.g. how students are engaged in clubs / organisations, where students volunteer their time, where they have travelled on internships / study abroad whilst at UQ etc. which will only help to further inform UQ’s young alumni programme. UQ Advantage also run an Award Symposium Series, which offers a natural volunteer opportunity for UQ’s most successful young alumni and / or Future Leaders. Alumni speakers offer a trusted source of advice and guidance and offer demonstrable examples of success; the ‘Future Leaders’ in particular are a great example of why and how demonstrating student leadership does still matter once you graduate! In addition, as many of the students who attend these events are some of UQ’s highest achievers, the inclusion of alumni speakers stretches their aspirations and shows them ‘what they could become’ by continuing of the leadership path that they are forging for themselves. 

As you will see from my blog of yesterday, I really do believe that the UQ Advantage Award naturally offers a brilliant foundation for the Advancement Team’s ‘Future Leaders’ initiative, not just in terms of a pipeline (all final year students registered on the award are encouraged to apply) but also as a way of uncovering a rich seam of data on student activity and offering a range of valuable and attractive volunteer opportunities for successful young alumni. So, all in all, very mutually reinforcing!

Leaders of tomorrow.

Eaten, rested and back in the blogging game…

UQ recognise that when it comes to alumni ‘rising stars’, student leaders are the ones to watch. By engaging with this group while they are on campus, they immediately have an advantage when trying to remain in contact with these individuals once they graduate. To this end, they have developed the UQ ‘Future Leaders’ Programme.

As part of their dedicated Young Alumni Programme, the ‘Future Leaders’ programme has been developed to recognise those that have enriched the UQ community (in a multiplicity of ways) during their time at University e.g. through leading societies, fundraising, community engagement etc. It is a way of acknowledging the scale and diversity of leadership roles that students undertake and offers the appointed ‘leaders’ a programme of activities to keep them connected with the University immediately after they graduate. The programme is based on self-application (as the best students often do a huge variety of different things and are best placed to note them all!) however all faculties are encouraged to nominate appropriate students. These students are then sent a personalised invitation encouraging them to apply. Developing strong internal relationships and harnessing effective communication channels are therefore critical to ensure a suitable calibre and breadth of applications. As the programme gains momentum it will be critical for the team to demonstrate the impact of the ‘Future Leaders’; this will increase the kudos of the programme and hopefully increase the number of internal nominations etc.

The programme was launched this year and they appointed 200 ‘Future Leaders’; the 5 year plan aims to develop a pool of approximately 1000 individuals that have made a significant impact on the UQ community during the course of their education. As previously noted, there is a large proportion of UQ’s alumni community remain locally and therefore the value proposition of the ‘Future Leaders’ focuses on activity in Brisbane. The first event is a free cocktail reception on campus that takes place just ahead of their graduation. At this event, a directory of ‘Future Leaders’ is distributed (the ultimate aim is for this to be online); it offers a chance for the group to meet, to disseminate information about the alumni programme and for individual and collective successes and contributions to be recognised. Going forward, this event will be focused on existing ‘Future Leaders’ welcoming in the new cohort. The team then plan for three more events during the group’s first year post graduation. These events all enable the ‘Future Leaders’ to network with each other and remain in contact with the University. They are paid events but offer exclusive access to venues, speakers or experiences e.g. private members club, brewery trip, industry focused brunch etc.

All ‘Future Leaders’ are also encouraged to join a closed LinkedIn group as a way of remaining in regular contact with each other; from this cohort, more than 90% have joined the group, which I think is a clear indication that they believe that there is real value in being a part of this select group. Looking through the list of ‘Future Leaders’ was pretty inspiring; whilst their leadership roles and contributions are very diverse, they all shared the common characteristics of dynamism, engagement and commitment. These are precisely the key individuals that we often look to identify once they graduate. By identifying, celebrating and engaging with them during the critical transition from student to alumni, UQ will be much better placed to promote key stories of success, identify appropriate volunteers and obtain strong feedback on their young alumni programming.

This principle of developing a strong relationship with key influential students is not dissimilar to UVa’s Student Ambassador Programme, UoM’s Student Appeal or UoB’s approach to developing activity directly with student society leadership committees. However, the main differentiator is the overt nature of the programme; it is clearly focused on recognising and celebrating the most successful students and explicitly highlighting them as the newest alumni with the greatest potential to succeed. This not only forms a core group of key young alumni that the office can work with but, with the right internal marketing and promotion, it will also result in a highly desirable network (more than 1000 graduates over 5 years) that students will aspire to be a part of and faculties will want to ensure they are well represented within. This is therefore a major asset for UQ both in terms of young alumni programming and the development of strong faculty and student engagement.

Who doesn’t like a free T-Shirt (or a dedicated Young Alumni Programme)?!

If you are a current student, graduated from UQ in the last 10 years and / or are under 35 then you are in luck – the University has just treated you to your very own Alumni Officer!

With more than 40k alumni residing in and around Brisbane, the University decided to increase its emphasis on developing alumni activity that will benefit this previously ‘under-engaged’ group. As a vast proportion of this group are young alumni, this has resulted in the appointment of a dedicated ‘Young Alumni Officer’. The post was developed following a substantial period of research, which essentially indicated that young alumni wanted more opportunities to meet and network however, in a more relaxed and less structured or directly academic / professional way. The Advancement team have therefore developed a calendar of local events that test this concept e.g. access to sports events, a visit to a microbrewery, exclusive access to some events within the local arts scene etc. The main aim of these events is to raise awareness of the office and increase engagement with the substantial number of alumni that remain in the local area.

It is also clear that whilst raising awareness among the local alumni community is important, it is much easier to start this process with students – essentially a captive audience of ‘future alumni’. The team do this via a strong presence at graduations, distributing highly desirable ‘Class of…’ T-shirts to all graduands and collecting advice to offer to current students. They also have a presence at ‘Market Day’ during orientation week (essentially the equivalent of our student societies fair at induction) where they play ‘The Alumni Game’. This involves students guessing the alum from a picture board of recognisable faces to win a T-shirt (T-shirts seem to be a valuable currency in Queensland!). These are both fairly soft way of getting the alumni message across whilst still offering something that is a very tangible reminder of their place, or future place, within the UQ alumni community.

Much like at Birmingham, they also facilitate alumni guest speakers for careers talks, student society events etc. However, much like at Birmingham, they recognise that they could do a much better job of branding and communicating alumni involvement across existing activity. This is something that we are working on in the Business School with the development of an ‘alumni logo’ that will be essentially ‘brand’ any activity powered by alumni support!

The key theme that seems to permeate through all of their activity is relevance – making sure that all activity talks directly to what the students and young alumni are saying that they want. The team are certainly not short on other ideas; I was lucky enough to spend the majority of the afternoon discussing how they want their programme to develop and some of the most interesting conversations centred on how the alumni team can best support students to develop their online profile and reputation. This is something that is becoming increasingly critical and is particularly pertinent to students looking to secure graduate employment. By collaborating with careers colleagues and connecting students with alumni who can offer support in an area that is critically important to them, I am sure that this will have much greater impact than a more traditional or ‘informative’ approach to alumni relations

The areas outlined above are all much more focused on mass engagement however, another major facet of this role is to develop and nurture relationships with key individuals who are identified as most likely to make a substantial and lasting contribution to the UQ community. This has resulted in two major initiatives entitled ‘Future Leaders’ and the Young Alumni Advisory Board. More on these programmes very soon…

(…it’s getting on on Friday night and I’m hungry. Never at my most articulate when I’m hungry).