Is student recruitment broken?

This year, there have been warnings about unconditional offers, ‘ambitious’ student number projections and the amount spent on marketing to students. James Higgins looks into HE’s recruitment glitches

Problem? What problem?
Student recruitment has never been more hotly contested. The tactics universities use to attract students have become ever more competitive and questions are being raised about the effect this is having on students.

The Office for Students (OfS) has had a busy 2019. So far this year the watchdog has scrutinised the 30% rise in unconditional offers in the last six years and raised concerns about ‘ambitious’ student recruitment figures. The Guardian also revealed an increase in university advertising spending, with a significant number of HEIs spending six figures on their recruitment strategy.

This environment could become increasingly strained as universities contend with the forecast ‘demographic dip’ in the student recruitment pipeline. Generation Z – the generation entering university now – is much smaller than the generation before. Each issue alone is not necessarily insurmountable, but taken together are these issues representative of a healthy, sustainable student recruitment model?

Should universities be aiming to recruit more students?
The OfS found two-thirds of universities are projecting student number increases of more than 5% over the next four years. Sector-wide, institutions are forecasting an extra 171,000 students in total, a rise of more than 10%. The report said: “Providers’ forecasts indicate a general weakening of financial performance over the next year, with improvements thereafter. Some of this forecast improvement is due to ambitious assumptions about growth in student numbers.

“The majority of these providers are not reliant on such projected growth to ensure their financial viability and sustainability, but they may need to reduce their projected costs if their student recruitment ambitions are not met.”

Amatey Doku, vice-president of the National Union of Students, said an overhaul in unconditional offers was needed “which doesn’t require universities to compete and take drastic steps to recruit vast student numbers in order to stay afloat”. Although the debate around unconditional offers is an important one, “vast numbers” of students are not necessarily a bad thing.

The majority of providers are not reliant on such growth to ensure their financial viability and sustainability, but they may need to reduce projected costs if their recruitment ambitions are not met
OfS report

At present, the university regulator says 67% of English universities had gaps in participation rates for students from the least and most advantaged areas. If the number of students increases, there is a high chance this increase will be made up from students from underrepresented groups.

If we want to make space for all, we need to make more space. Making sure there are adequate facilities and plenty of teaching staff to cater for more students is crucial, but there is no reason, per se, that universities should view recruiting more students as a bad thing. Quite how HEIs intend to increase more students from a field of candidates 20% smaller than in previous years remains to be seen.

Sir Michael Barber, head of OfS, said at Wonkfest HE festival that the regulator would not bail out providers in financial difficulty. Universities must, therefore, be trusted to know their own limitations.

Unconditional approval
In April, education secretary Damian Hinds described the use of unconditional offers as “unethical”. UCAS figures revealed that last year over a third of 18-year-old applicants in England, Northern Ireland and Wales received an unconditional offer – up from just 1.1% in 2013. In 2018, 87,540 applicants received an unconditional offer. Since the cap on students was lifted in 2015, the percentage of students receiving these offers went from between 10–15% to 33%.

In 2017, one in 10 offers made by universities in the east of England had an unconditional element, the highest of any region and more than three times the percentage made by HEIs in the North East. The OfS suggests this is because of a ‘domino effect’ – if one provider in a region offers a high number of unconditional offers, local competitors follow suit.

Hinds conceded in his statement that unconditional offers can help improve participation rates for students from underrepresented groups. Applicants from areas where fewer students go to university are more likely to receive an unconditional offer than those from areas where most 18-year-olds do.

This is because, the OfS concluded, offers to students from less advantaged areas are more likely to be made by mid- to low-tariff universities – those institutions that accept students with lower A-level results or IB scores. If this is the case, there is the risk of creating a two-tier system. Students from a less-advantaged background with a chance of going to an elite university could be encouraged to accept an unconditional offer from a university lower down the league table to guarantee themselves a place – this would have a negative effect on social mobility.

Nicola Dandridge, OfS chief executive, said: “It is not in students’ interests to push them into decisions that may not be right for them, and admissions practices are clearly not working if they are having a negative impact on students’ choices or outcomes.” This statement was made after UCAS data revealed that students with ‘conditional unconditional’ offers were 7% more likely to miss their predicted A-levels by two grades than students with conditional offers. The OfS launched a review in January with the DfE, UCAS, students, HEI, schools and employers to look at how these offers could be having a detrimental effect on applicants.

The regulator has since encouraged universities to use contextual offers more readily, saying: “Evidence also suggests that universities could be much more ambitious in the changes they make to their entry requirements for disadvantaged applicants without experiencing a fall in degree performance or completion.” Unconditional offers may already be on the way out to be replaced with contextual offers.

Does attracting students need to cost money?
A Guardian FOI request in April found that universities are spending millions on growing advertising budgets. In 2017/18, two English HEIs (University of Central Lancashire and University of the West of England) spent more than £3m on advertising to recruit students. The growth was linked to the 2015/16 decision to remove the cap on student recruitment. Commenting on these findings, Universities UK (UUK), which represents 136 universities across Great Britain and Northern Ireland, said: “Recent government policy, including the Higher Education and Research Act, has had the intention of creating a more vibrant market and a focus on student choice, so it’s not surprising that we have seen changes in behaviour and different marketing strategies across the sector.” It was notable that the universities spending the most on marketing are those in the lower and middle ranks of university league tables.

Focusing on the in-work opportunities we offer is a way to advertise our courses. Students don’t want to hear from marketing managers – bringing students
in to help makes our message more authentic – Hannah Birchell, Salford University

Speaking at Whatuni Insights Day, Dr Paul Reymond, director of student experience and enhancement at Liverpool University suggested there are more cost-effective ways to market to students. Invoking the power of the Apple brand, Reymond said customers are the most powerful advocate of a corporarion. Making students happy and proud of their university is the best way to advertise. He also observed “customers will never be happier than the staff” and that creating a brand that all members of a university community feel proud of will advertise the strength of a HEI more than any publicity. Hannah Birchell, associate director of marketing and communications at Salford University, echoes this approach. “Applications to Salford are up 16% in two years”, she said. “We don’t have the luxury of the Russell Group so focusing on the in-work opportunities we offer our students is a way to advertise our courses.” Birchell also says she employs four students to help Salford with their social media. “Students don’t want to hear from marketing managers,” Birchell laughs, “bringing students in to help makes our message more authentic.”

Birchell says Salford University interviews many of its applicants. “It is another opportunity for students to be more than what they are on a piece of paper,” she says. She also attributes the university’s success in recruitment to their outreach programmes which work with students as young as 13 to build confidence and dissuade fears about costs.

It is a more ‘soft’ advertising that is proving fruitful.

What happens next?
The regulator looks set to clamp down on practices it thinks are unsustainable but its report on contextual offers released earlier this year highlights the excellent work many institutions are undertaking. Bristol University is singled out, for example, as a Russell Group university that is setting the standard on contextualising success. In 2016, it offered one thousand lower offers to applicants from areas where fewer young people go on to further education. Student recruitment can achieve both things – it can both maintain a pipeline of applicants and reach students from less-advantaged backgrounds.

It does not need to be a cynical race to the bottom. And, if Dr Reymond is right, it does not need to cost an arm and a leg. Word of mouth is still a powerful tool and ‘influencers’ like teachers can have a big impact on how universities are perceived by applicants.

You might also like: How can universities maximise their student recruitment campaigns?

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