Changing student recruitment in light of Covid-19

While a major threat, Covid-19 is an opportunity to reshape the way universities recruit students. Katherine Lloyd Clark details what we do after the crisis

Approaches to UK student recruitment have changed remarkably little in the last quarter century. And as a profession, we have been slow to imagine new ways of doing things. The current crisis shows us how we might be braver, to manage the current crisis and do things differently on the other side of it.

Analogue thinking in a digital world

It’s extraordinary to think, but we still lug thousands of boxes of printed prospectuses to hundreds of UCAS fairs and school events across the UK. True, I don’t have to work out where the choke is on the hire car any more and, yes, the events themselves have a few more bells and whistles (barcode scanners, digital display boards) and interior design (deck chairs and camper vans), but the basic interaction is unchanged: we hand out vast quantities of hard-copy prospectuses or mini guides, pick up 15% of them from the bins afterwards and acknowledge that a further 20% are left on the bus back to college with the chocolate wrappers and chewing gum.

We may “account manage” services to an overwhelming number of school and college “stakeholders” but what we say when we turn up is still, too often, bog standard “choosing a course” or “choosing a university” material which should be readily available digitally. The flipped classroom hasn’t had much impact here. Though we do many things well, we don’t excel at capturing the rich and often radical difference of the HE experience from classroom life at school or college. We try to use student ambassadors for that authentic voice and this is overwhelmingly positive – they do a superb job. But we, the student recruitment professionals, need to create and collaborate in wholly new ways following this Covid-19 crisis.

We must seize this chance to experiment with new ways of speaking to Year 12 and 13 and all the other learners on access and foundation courses, or taking Open University units during this uncertain time. This doesn’t mean using the break from face-to-face events to do the same things digitally. Yes, that is exciting. But we are in danger, in home student recruitment, of creating the same monsters that now dominate international recruitment.

Our colleagues in the international office collect carbon footprint like their institutions wish they could rack up research income. They attend exhibitions large and small to keep the British Council or commercial providers in business and pay to attend fairs organised by a host of education agents keen to take money off us on top of the vast amounts of commission we also pay.

The same agents also want us to invest in a myriad of marketing campaigns and advertising. UK student recruitment is going (or, for some of us, has already gone) the same way. The capability associated with direct marketing, including micro-targeting, is superficially attractive but we continue with traditional outreach because we are too scared to stop. Yet it is expensive beyond belief and helping to destroy our planet.

Something in the current Covid-19 situation should make us braver.

More is at stake suddenly in our daily lives. My student recruitment budget, for one, can’t afford this spend on all fronts and shouldn’t have to because it doesn’t deliver the best added value.

Three things to do differently post-crisis

1. We should permanently stop attending all those UCAS HE fairs with the accommodation, travel, ambassador, print and freight costs associated, and replace them with a smaller number of regional Year 12 HE teaching and learning conferences (recorded for greater reach and accessibility).

These should be sector led, focussing on what to expect from the study experience in HE rather than what to study and where (since we will now have much better digital resources for all that).

2. We should focus much more extensively on providing serious professional development for the teachers and careers professionals responsible for information, advice and guidance in schools and colleges. They, and careers provision generally, have been badly let down by successive governments but we have value to add here. Schools should not need us to explain the obvious dates and deadlines to pupils or parents but they do need us to inspire Year 12, and access or foundation learners everywhere, with a detailed and well-informed overview of what studying at our particular HE institution is really like.

And they could do with rather more help than I think we give in understanding newer, exciting, often interdisciplinary course options such as liberal arts, degree apprenticeships, MSci vs BSc, or what you actually study on an anthropology or a media arts degree.

3. We should speak more directly with the UCAS board. We must press its HE members, our own senior leaders, to stimulate and share stronger discussions on the future evolution of UCAS as a world-leading HE guidance platform. We must consider as a sector how we can halt the incessant pressure we experience to buy the latest technology or app to add to our arsenal of hideously expensive audience engagement tools. UCAS sells or promotes some of these itself (though we have an interesting example of a change of tack recently with the temporary postponement of most Unibuddy charges).

Innovation in student recruitment often comes from the entrepreneur and private enterprise space, rather than UCAS or from within universities. Surely we can do something about this? Post-qualification admissions or not, technical challenges accepted, the key question for UCAS and for us as student recruitment professionals post-Covid-19 is how to stop competition, lack of head space and institutional risk aversion wasting our financial resources, limiting our sustainability goals and disguising our opportunity to deliver a more purposeful, meaningful and content-rich set of messages to future students and their influencers. As Bill Clinton once said: “the price of doing the same old thing is far higher than the price of change”.

7 responses to “Changing student recruitment in light of Covid-19

  1. Whilst I agree with the sentiment describing ‘traditional’ operations for international student recruitment, there are now more financially and environmentally sustainable and targeted approaches that can be taken. Using the evidence to inform what is effective, and what isn’t, can enable the making of brave and rewarding decisions.

    As Bill Clinton ‘could’ have said: “the price of doing the same old thing is failure”.

  2. This is a great piece. Point 2 is excellent and I think would be gratefully received by CEIAG professionals!

  3. A really interesting piece and good to challenge ‘the ways things are’ however I also feel this is a little dismissive and pessimistic. It does not reflect the passion and commitment of many recruitment professionals who travel around the country to share the opportunities available at their institution. The staff who innovate and deliver information in engaging and enthusiastic ways, utilsing new software or tools.

    Many guides and prospectus may be discarded and on the face of it interactions at a UCAS fair may not have changed, but the fairs still exist, in fact comptitors are the problem not lack of interest.Teachers and advisers bring their students in the 1000’s because face to face conversation can not be outweighed by websites and virtual deliver.

    Online is useful, accessible and interactive to a point, but what can’t be measured (and is therefore often under valued) is the impact that a recruitment professional can have, the influence of a student ambassadors and the opportunity for local students to engage with places they may not have heard of before but 50 miles away the right opportunity was waiting for them.

  4. Jonny, thank you for your comment. I’m not calling for a wholesale switch to online and believe as passionately as you (having spend 24 years doing it) in the power of direct face-to-face engagement with our student recruitment audiences. But I also think we can and should innovate more in terms of topics and themes. Working closely with our academic colleagues is key and we must work harder to bridge the gap between school or college and HE. Helping our audiences understand what the modern HE experience is really like and how different it is to the Level 3 phase is critical – for all educational settings. The transition themes that our WP colleagues cover are relevant for everyone and it is this shift in emphasis that really interests me (or perhaps I’ve just given one too many Choosing the Right Course presentation!). Take care and keep safe.

  5. Grear Article Katherine . Yes , we do need to question our business as usual approach and rethink how we do both domestic and international recruitment and what that means for student advising.

    The Covid crisis has accelerated change and the move online for much of the ” information gathering ” will allow more time for innovation and creativity in how we talk about our institutions and the choices students have for their tertiary level education. Those options will also be different with new thinking about study abroad options already evident in the key overseas markets.

  6. a very thoughtful piece of well argued writing; the idea of a focus on teaching and learning conferences (with digital availability) is certainly a good idea for all those in Years 10, 11 & 12 whose education is being fundamentally disrupted for the foreseeable future and with all sorts of consequences for future engagement we have yet to consider; giving this group something new of real ‘added value’ focussing on transition between different phases of learning going into and through HE could be a real step forward – perhaps with prioritisation for face-to face attendance on schools with high percentages of disadvantaged students/first generation entrants so that participation in these events simply is not a reinforcer of existing educational/broader cultural advantage.

    Building on successful intensive strategies used in the WP field but broadened out to a larger cohort so as to expand understanding of some of the HE choice options flagged in (2) above is also an excellent idea and could also more broadly be linked to the changes in delivery of HE towards more blended/on-line modes of teaching arising from the present set of circumstances but which will almost certainly/inevitably be a continuing feature of post-2020 HE delivery longer term..

    Finally establishing ways by which sector professionals can engage more directly – and with real influence – with the UCAS Board (whilst difficult to bring about given its make-up) would be very worthwhile particularly if OfS/ the government seeks to take advantage of this year’s unique set of circumstances to push seriously for a move to PQA on either of the models canvassed in the OfS consultation now delayed for response for the duration of the current lockdown and where some meaningful level of direct practitioner representation could only add value whilst simultaneously being a force for greater accountability to the practitioner community.

  7. My colleagues at the University of Gloucestershire have already moved to replace the printed 200 page prospectus for 2021 entry with online content and clear engagement at future HE Fairs.

    The importance of face to face contact with applicants and the passion we all share for outreach activities should not be underestimated, or the impact of a different “face” presenting and engaging with potential students, especially as so many schools have been forced to reduce their face to face careers and HE guidance support.

    Having organised UCAS Fairs on University campuses in the 2000s and 2010s in the West Mids I can confirm that the high impact of them on focusing minds, creating a sense of excitement and levelling the HE guidance playing field is also important from a widening access context. My own intel suggests that School/college HE Guidance and careers enagement with Y13/Y12 has fallen of a cliff in recent weeks, so the appetite to re-engage will be strong whenever that is. Thanks for writing the article and best wishes to all.

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