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”.