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You are reading: Myth-busting, storytelling or marketing? Innovating with video to prepare non-traditional future students for university success

Samantha McMahon, Valerie Harwood, Anthony McKnight, Kate Senior and Sarah Ryan

In the contemporary context, many universities create and use short videos. These ‘polished’, carefully branded videos are most frequently used to promote and recruit students to specific universities. But are these powerful video tools only suited for securing a market share of ‘excellent’ school leavers? What if, with zero intent of recruiting students to a specific institution, we produced non-branded storytelling videos about the university experience? Could this help non-traditional future students, particularly students experiencing socioeconomic disadvantage, gain access to new narratives and cultural capitals that might help them positively reimagine their educational futures?

The need for such resources is clear. Misinformation about, and inaccurate imaginings of, university are barriers to university participation for non-traditional students. For example, young people from disadvantaged communities tend to imagine university as completely tangled up with ‘old ideas’ of their experiences of school. They think university is simply a ‘bigger version of school’, which is problematic because their experiences and opinions of schooling are often pervasively negative (Harwood et al. 2017; McMahon, Harwood & Hickey-Moody 2016). Why would you think about ‘doing more school [i.e. university]’ if primary and high school were terrible experiences for you? You probably wouldn’t.

For young people experiencing socioeconomic disadvantage who may not have easy access to higher education narratives (such as through family, school or friends), imagining educational futures requires new ideas to be created. Importantly, they need access to the ‘new idea’ that educational futures can be different from, and potentially better than, schooling. This was the central message of the 2-minute video we produced.

Uni Isn’t School. Imagine it differently, is the video we developed in consultation with researchers, widening participation outreach programs and current university students at the University of Wollongong (UOW). The video was played to non-traditional future students as part of various UOW outreach or transition programs in 2017.

We interviewed 88 of the people who watched the video and asked them what they thought the video was about and what they did and did not like about it and why. Overall, the video was very well received. When asked to ‘give the video an overall mark out of 100’, participants awarded an average overall mark of 81. The participants further commented on their reasons for the mark they awarded. These comments provide insights into the media messaging preferences of this demographic (but that is for another article, another time!). Although almost all transcripts demonstrated participants’ shifted understandings of university, around 50 per cent of interviews explicitly articulated the key message of the video as ‘uni isn’t school’:

Uni is a whole different ball game compared to school. Basically.”

— Rebecca, Bega Campus, UOW.

Like I didn’t know how dramatic the differences [are] … between high school to university.”

— Ryan, Shoalhaven Campus, UOW.

“G — And we’re … used to being in school, like we’ve done school for thirteen years, so 
C — like that’s all we know
G — they’re trying to tell us except something is different in uni.”

— Chloe & Gemma, Wollongong Campus, UOW.

When participants voluntarily discussed ‘uni isn’t school’ they did this along various lines of thought. They reported coming to understand university as a plausible and desirable lifestyle, rather than an abstract continuation of school. Reasons for this were articulated as new understandings of the:

  • ‘real-ness’ of university (beyond the shiny marketing campaigns)
  • increased freedoms, better timing and pacing of studies and, conversely, decreased pressures and constraints compared with school
  • university curriculum as flexible and imbued with choice
  • learning environment as different from, and more interesting than, school (for example, cafés, gyms, trees).

It was also clear that the video encouraged students to draw a distinction between teachers at university compared to school. Participants noted that university teachers were not ‘pushing’, ‘making’, or ‘telling’ you to do things in the way they had experienced at high school. For example:

You’re not pushed by your teachers or tutors as much as you are at high school … It’s a lot more self-motivated.”

— Mark, Shoalhaven Campus, UOW.

It just shows kind of the difference between school and uni and showed that uni was a lot more up to you rather than being told to do something.”

— Alice, Bega Campus, UOW.

“Like at Uni it’s independent, you decide what you learn, when you learn and whether you’re going to get that mark … whereas school you’re being pushed and pushed to do it.”

— Claire, Shoalhaven Campus, UOW.

This finding was supplemented by reported new learnings about the need for self-directed learning at university, and by inference, less reliance on teachers.

The success of this innovative project prompts equity practitioners and university marketing teams to collaborate in new ways to examine the potential for the principles of ‘marketing videos’ to connect people with education. Our research suggests that we need to produce not just institution-specific, branded ‘ads’ or ‘infomercials’ but more general, easily accessible storytelling about the ‘realities’ of university life that render pursuing educational futures at university an attractive and achievable option. We invite further conversations about this project with our equity practitioner colleagues across Australia, please don’t hesitate to contact us at


Samantha McMahon and Valerie Harwood, School of Education and Social Work, The University of Sydney, Sydney, Australia

Anthony McKnight and Sarah Ryan, School of Education, University of Wollongong, Wollongong, Australia

Kate Senior, School of Health and Society, University of Wollongong, Wollongong, Australia


Harwood, V., Hicky-Moody, A., McMahon, S. and O’Shea, S. (2017). The politics of widening participation and university access for young people: making educational futures, New York: Routledge.

McMahon, S., Harwood V. and Hickey-Moody, A. (2016). ‘Students that just hate school wouldn’t go’: educationally disengaged and disadvantaged young people’s talk about university. British Journal of Sociology of Education. 37(8): 1109-1128.

The video is permanently available on the UOW YouTube channel.