Why are we driving students away?

Recruiting the most talented students seems to have turned into something of an arms race, says Matt Eastlake

Ucas announced this week that European universities would be able to join its university admissions service, allowing UK students to apply to them in the same way that they would domestic HEIs. This is just the latest in a number of interventions that are significantly changing the recruitment, and resulting demographic, of students at UK universities.

It wasn’t so long ago, after all, that tuition fees tripled from just over £3,000 a year to a maximum of £9,000. This was followed by the partial lifting of the student cap, which is due to be removed completely in the next academic year.

Admissions became somewhat trivialised during last year’s Clearing, with some universities bribing prospective students with iPads, laptops and cold hard cash. And now it seems we’re encouraging them to drop UK HE all together, and flock to the Netherlands or Germany; where tuition fees don’t make such a dent in the student pocket, or don’t exist altogether. When will this superfluous disruption end?

World Challenge recently conducted research into the university admissions process which proved that these blights have changed a clear-cut selection process into something much more ambiguous.

Each university wants to recruit the best and the brightest, with nearly 90% of admissions teams surveyed citing grades as the most important aspect of a successful application. However, recruiting the most talented seems to have turned into something of an arms race. The personal statement has become a tactical tool, fed into CRM systems that align a university’s extra-curricular offerings with a specific student’s hobbies.

The decoupling of A levels will make matters even more confusing, with GCSEs, rightly or wrongly the most recent qualifications that universities will be able to use to measure the accuracy of predicted grades. We’re definitely seeing a power shift, and it’s not in favour of the universities.

What seems to have been forgotten, or at least overlooked in this scramble for student numbers and employability statistics, though, is the fact that the UK is home to a world class higher education system. We’ve got traditional institutions that are bastions of academia and the pursuit of knowledge alongside modern HEIs where practical courses and employability are the focus.

So why, when universities are working so hard on student recruitment, are we increasing the size of the playing field and encouraging them to study abroad? Surely the focus needs to be on shouting about the wonderful institutions we already have here in the UK?

I’m all for overseas education and experience – World Challenge’s objective is to broaden young people’s horizons by enabling them to fund, organise and lead their own expeditions to the developing world – and believe that students should of course apply to foreign universities if they so choose.

This new Ucas initiative will indeed make this easier, and make studying abroad much more accessible, which is, ultimately, a good thing. This, however, isn’t the main issue. What we should be focusing our efforts on, and what is far more important in my opinion, is looking at making our own universities more accessible and attractive to prospective students.

Our research showed that both students and their teachers are often left confused by differing advice on applying to universities. Perhaps this confusion is why HEFCE findings demonstrate that those from widening participation backgrounds are being underrepresented in all areas of higher education; from student populations to academia as a profession.

It’s clear, then, that we need to focus on growing and improving domestic opportunities in higher education, rather than those farther afield. Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be a one-size-fits-all magic solution to achieving this, but belief, faith and pride in our own education system is surely a good place to start.

Matt Eastlake (pictured) is Group MD at World Challenge. The ‘Giving you the edge: What is the real value of extra-curricular experience in the university application process?’ research report is available to view at www.world-challenge.co.uk/university. 


29 October 2020 11am (GMT)

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