Change the world


Scrambling to connect with thousands of young South Africans under harsh lockdown restrictions, Nelson Mandela University’s tossing of traditional student recruitment rules was a gamble that paid off.


A staggering 44.57% increase in first-year students registered to study at the Eastern Cape institution in 2022 has exploded expectations, with 8637 applicants on the books – an unprecedented uptick from 5972 last year.

Most telling, says student recruitment deputy director Jo-Ann Daniels, is that the innovative digital campaign reached even those without technology access: youth in remote or underprivileged areas across the country.

“South Africa remains one of the most deeply divided and unequal societies in the world. Our ‘digital first’ plan needed to be mindful of displaced communities who may not have access to new media.”

“Heart-centred” approach

Student recruitment (SR) teams play a critical role in promoting higher education to potential students, says Daniels.

The seven-faculty institution, with campuses in Gqeberha and George, had always relied on face-to-face interactions, through open days, campus tours, school visits, national career day exhibitions, church and community initiatives and parent evenings.

“These practices were always conducted face-to-face. We refer to it as ‘heart’ work, because SR works directly with its audiences and shares in their dreams and aspirations.

“Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdown in March 2020 had an immediate negative impact on our undergraduate recruitment practices. Strict restrictions limiting face-to-face interactions were in place.”

As Mandela University raced to implement a digital-based solution to save the academic year, SR was catapulted into new ways of recruiting.

Doing it differently

As students worldwide got to grips with online or home-based learning, Mandela Uni’s SR team felt that something more than a digital solution was needed to net – and keep – potential interest in the institution.

“We had to maintain the ‘heart’ in our work, as we usually work directly with stakeholders in real settings,” says Daniels.

While ICT experts helped departments set up remote learning and connection arms, SR radically adapted its traditional campaign messages to focus on health and wellness, rather than run-of-the-mill academic information.

Psycho-social matters, wellness videos, physical and emotional health blogs and collaborations with faculty experts in these fields helped cement the university as a caring, informative, humanising and people-centred institution, she says.

“The team understood day-to-day anxieties and fears for Grade 12 learners in an ordinary year. But (during Covid-19), it was critical to alleviate fears, provide resources and be a reliable, trustworthy source of information to help this market through a tumultuous period.”

Bridging the divide

With valuable, wellness-focused content in the bag, the team drove recruitment through social media, Google advertising, SEO, public relations, digital meeting platforms, direct marketing, press releases, mainstream and community newspapers, television and radio.

Media interviews positioned Mandela Uni as a thought leader on various topics, says Daniels, while an intense radio advertising campaign reached prospective students living in remote areas, where internet access was limited or non-existent.

“By overcoming physical contact limitations of the lockdown, the campaign cost-effectively reached and generated 43526 unique applications from applicants across all nine provinces during the 2020/2021 recruitment cycle.”

The digital meeting platform proved hugely successful, with prospective students and parents chatting to recruitment team members via appointment, rather than simply arriving at a public space as part of a general audience.

“It was more personal and we could cater to the individual needs of prospective first-years.”

Ironically, says Daniels, despite the physical distance between SR and its audiences, the team reached far more prospective students through its digital approach, with social media and website platforms recording reach into the millions.

The university’s move to a ‘digital first’ approach, accelerated by the pandemic, has reaped major benefits, she says. This is most evident in the online campaigns run by the Student Recruitment section of Communication and Marketing.

“Since the digital strategy implementation in 2020, we’ve grown our social media platform audience by 86% and increased our impressions – the number of times posts are displayed to users – by 36% to over 34.5 million.

“These platforms are extremely influential when aspiring students research their universities of choice – and their experience of how a university responds to queries has great impact on that final choice.”

Last year, SUBS:2021 over 35 000 queries were received on social media profiles via comments or private message, mainly on Facebook and Instagram.

“Much of this can be attributed to the fact that our campaigns were not only about recruitment, but also about providing tools for success and wellness during the pandemic.

“We managed to reach audiences in all communities across the length and breadth of the country.”

Building a ship while sailing has galvanised the way SR will work now, and in the future, says Daniels.

“With a somewhat normal return to life, the university will embrace a hybrid model for student recruitment, with 70% of activities remaining digital and 30% targeted face-to-face interaction, in line with Covid-19 guidelines.”

Contact information
Mrs Jo-Ann Daniels
Deputy-Director: Marketing and Student Recruitment
Tel: 041-504 3084