Right people, right time: rethinking student recruitment

Started your 2022 recruitment campaign yet? As Ucas undergraduate applications open, Ledetta Asfa-Wossen delves into the latest intel on student recruitment, looking at strategies from subject-focused outreach to user-generated content

Recruiting students in the age of a pandemic is no mean feat. Digital solutions have brought learning a long way, helping students and teachers to interact and collaborate both on and off campus. With many prospective students unable to travel or attend face-to-face open days over the past year, painting a vivid picture of university life has never been so essential – but getting across what a complete university experience has to offer in the midst of uncertainty has its challenges.

“Our research into what students have been thinking and feeling throughout this cycle has shown that lots of students have been looking for more reassurance from universities,” explains Rebecca Hopwood, head of sales at Ucas.

“As we are all coming out of lockdowns and the impact of the pandemic, students are finding that they want to understand more about the pastoral side of university.

As students couldn’t attend open days easily they were also looking for on-demand content and information from universities to paint a picture of what their experiences would be like, and seeking authentic views of university to determine that for themselves.”

Applicants are seeking more reassurance from universities than ever


Up close and personal

According to Hopwood, first-hand accounts are remarkably powerful when it comes to student recruitment, particularly when many physical elements may have been lost.

“In our latest Pre-applicants: Planning for 2022 report, positive reviews from students ranked third as the most important factor for decision-making; first and second were the course and employment rates.”

However, in painting that picture, Hopwood is keen to stress that authenticity and transparency remain key to any student recruitment marketing strategy, and offers some essential tips for universities looking to attract students in 2022 and beyond.

“Our insights suggest that Generation Z are turned off by universities that they think are not transparent. Universities should paint a real picture for prospective students” – Rebecca Hopwood, head of sales, Ucas

“Our insights suggest that Generation Z are turned off by universities that they think are not transparent. Universities should paint a real picture for prospective students by helping them to speak with or access reviews from established students as they are seeking out these connections.”

Traditional open days were hit by the pandemic


Another important factor for students has been employability. In fact, when choosing their degree subject, over 50% of respondents Ucas surveyed said that high graduate employment rates had become more important to them since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, addressing this concern requires more than curating a list of impressive employment figures to pique the interest of prospective students.

“Things like employment rates are important but it’s always better to use subject-specific information and case studies to provide applicants with a more personalised experience and a realistic idea of what to expect,” adds Hopwood.

Another Covid-19-related impact that should be taken into account by any university’s student recruitment efforts is the fear of a knowledge gap, and how any online learning might affect future grades or ability.

Rebecca Hopwood, Ucas


In the same Ucas report, 48% of pre-applicants expressed they were worried about being able to keep up at university, while 24% were worried about not having enough support at university. Examples of support include, but are not exclusive to, mental health services, accommodation and financial advice, and guidance on how or which courses make a good return on investment. Universities that can improve the availability of support services and/or make their support proposition crystal clear could, therefore, have an advantage.

“Support is high on the agenda for 2022 students,” asserts Hopwood.

“Let prospective students know what is on offer, whether that be financial, emotional or academic. User-generated content works really well in this area too.”

Another factor to consider in any recruitment drive is the ongoing rise in students, which could increase the need for universities to differentiate and stand out among their competitors.

“We are seeing a real uptick in the rate of the 18-year-old population, but also, we are confident that the draw of higher education is still an attractive prospect to school leavers and mature applicants, potentially heightened by the pandemic, and those seeking a career change.”

Recruitment teams must continue to adapt to the evolving needs of prospective students


More information, better choices

While Covid-19 might not have negatively impacted the desire to enter higher education and its perceived value, the pandemic will no doubt continue to influence certain choices prospective students make. Whether that’s what they choose to study, what location they choose to study in, or what services and types of support they prioritise during their time in higher education.

Ucas is currently undertaking a series of reports entitled ‘Where Next?’ that look specifically at what influences school-leavers and their chosen pathways and how the Covid-19 generation has ultimately been impacted.

“We identified that two in five students say they would have made better choices had they had better access to higher-quality information and advice in school. As a result, one in five students couldn’t study a degree subject that interested them because they didn’t have the right subjects to progress,” shares Hopwood.

According to Ucas, this is most apparent among certain degree courses, such as medicine and dentistry, maths, economics or languages, which require applicants to have taken a specific set of ‘fixed’ pre-requisite qualifications.

Hopwood is also keen to highlight the importance of offering careers information, advice and guidance as soon as possible.

“Early engagement in careers information, advice and guidance is fundamental – with only one in three students understanding that higher education was an option for them at primary school,” she adds.

What’s even more interesting is that 83% of students choose their degree subject before they choose their preferred university or college, highlighting the importance of subject-focused outreach among institutions. Meanwhile, almost all (99%) said their choices at school were influenced by how much they enjoyed the subject – also the primary driver of degree choice.

99% of students said their school choices were influenced by how much they enjoyed a subject


Promoting all pathways to entry

With students facing more options than ever before, student recruitment departments also have the opportunity to play a greater role in informing students of all the options they have – including apprenticeships.

“At Ucas, we’re making those choices clearer and ensuring that all the information you need to make an informed decision about the pathway you follow is available for free at ucas.com. We are privileged to be in a position where we are able to support students to navigate their options, of which there have never been more, and grow our voice and influence in skills-based training, as our report findings tell us that there is a real need for improvement in this space.”

When it comes to apprenticeships and students’ exposure to them, there are some statistics that really stand out in revealing a harmful build-up of lack of information on apprenticeships. Ucas reports that over half of students looking to apply to HE in 2022 are interested in apprenticeships but find it difficult to access the relevant information they need about them.

Interestingly, the report also reveals a negative view of apprenticeships despite many students lacking any real information on them. For instance, only 8% of students surveyed associated apprenticeships with leading to a good job, while only 4% of students associate the word ‘prestigious’ with apprenticeships compared to 76% for a traditional university degree. Furthermore, one in three students do not receive any information about apprenticeships at school, showing that more needs to be done to promote parity across these routes.

Despite these survey findings, alternative pathways are still very much of interest to students.

“Forty-two per cent of UK 18-year-olds are currently holding an offer to commence a full-time undergraduate degree in autumn 2021, which leaves 58% not doing so. Seventy-eight per cent of the latter are interested in apprenticeships, saying the main attractions are financial income, learning in a different way, and a desire to do something new and different,” adds Hopwood.

But promoting all the many options and routes of entry available to students is about more than choice and helping students to make informed decisions. It’s about inclusive learning opportunities for all.

Applicants are looking for on-demand content from universities


Closing the gap

Whilst choice is a core part of the UK higher education system, it is essential that all students, regardless of their background, know how to navigate it and understand where their decisions could take them. Ucas reports that applications from students with disadvantaged backgrounds are rising but that those from more affluent backgrounds are rising further still.

No student should unwittingly close the door to their career aspirations and Hopwood is keen to state that early engagement can help raise aspiration by keeping students well informed earlier on in their decision-making process.

“Some universities start their campaigns in September or October, but in reality this needs to be far earlier if that university wants to cut through.
And, remember to stay authentic” – Rebecca Hopwood, head of sales, Ucas

“Again, this is about early and inclusive engagement. And making sure you reach the right people at the right time. The earlier the signposting, the better. Advantaged students are 1.4 times more likely to think about higher education in primary school than their disadvantaged peers. When we surveyed students in June, we found that 61% had already identified some courses and universities to apply to, and 14% had already decided on their five choices, so decisions are being made early. Some universities start their campaigns in September or October, but in reality this needs to be far earlier if that university wants to cut through. And, remember to stay authentic.”

But Hopwood is keen to reinforce that universities are constantly looking at how to improve their offering. She stresses that, currently, it’s not that universities are lacking in their recruitment-marketing initiatives, more that they need to continue to adapt to the evolving needs of their prospective students, particularly at this time.

“Ultimately, the basics of marketing are getting the right message to the right person at the right time. So, messaging should be kept simple. It should be tailored to the individual as much as possible, recognising that students are at different stages of their decision-making journeys, and understanding what information is relevant, and where to reach them, at every given stage.”

You might also like: Roundtable: How to run a successful student recruitment campaign

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