Universities need to show – not just tell – students what they stand for

Modern institutions must adjust their recruitment approach from data-driven to values-driven and realise the importance of putting people, not spreadsheets, first, says Dan Barcroft

Dan Barcroft's avatar
University of Sheffield
23 Aug 2023
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“But what league table position are you?” I remember when I first started working in recruitment at another university, that was one of the key things my team was repeatedly asked. The answer varied depending on whether the ranking was global or UK-based, or whether they wanted a result for their subject field specifically. But one thing remained the same – decisions from students on where to spend the next three or more years of their lives were often based on cold, hard data. 

Of course, I’m simplifying things. This wasn’t the only factor that drove student choice. Degree content played a major part, too, so a detailed prospectus entry was vital. But the decision process felt much faster and simpler than it is for students today. After doing their research on course make-up and league table positions, students generally attended one open day for each of their university choices before submitting their shortlist to UCAS. In some ways, the process was very streamlined; but in other ways, it felt very clinical and spreadsheet-based. 


Things have certainly evolved over the years, and league tables and course content are of course still important, but questions about ranking positions have been replaced recently by “What do you stand for?” and “What are your values?” – as well as a desire for us to show, not just tell. The days where university recruiters can rely on shiny league tables and spreadsheets are over – and Covid-19 has expedited that.

How do we know this? Well, at the University of Sheffield we anecdotally saw a shift in what was driving student choice, but this was also mirrored by insight from YouthSight and other trusted sources, as well as our own focus groups about student decision-making in terms of prospective Gen Z students and what mattered to them. The upshot was that students want an excellent university, but they also want to choose one that aligns with their values and beliefs.

In light of this, what do we need to do as recruiters? Well, we need to start by adjusting our recruitment approach from data-driven to people- and values-driven and realise the importance of putting people first, not spreadsheets. As we begin to shift from the values-conscious, pragmatic and shrewd consumerism of Generation Z to the values-driven, individualistic style and expectant consumerism of Generation A, we need to be prepared to really show what our institutions are, rather than simply tell. It’s not enough to “try” to be authentic in a curated way; we have to genuinely “be” authentic and transparent. 

At Sheffield, we’ve responded to this by ensuring we build meaningful interactions with prospective students so they get an idea of what we stand for before they invest. One open day at the start of the application cycle is no longer enough. In addition to five pre-application days, we now hold five open days for offer holders, giving them multiple opportunities to engage with us at a deeper level further on in their journeys.

There is a real demand for this. Our offer-holder days for 2023 saw a 15 per cent increase in attendance compared with 2022 events. University prospectuses and websites can tell students only so much; it’s only by students immersing themselves in university life by visiting campuses that they get a real feel for what to expect – something today’s students want. However, this needs to be on their terms, to suit their schedule and needs. We’re acutely aware that the cost-of-living crisis might limit the number of visits students can make, so we need to ensure we don’t further limit this by minimising those opportunities. In my opinion, providing multiple opportunities for students to visit and engage should be the sector standard, with online opportunities bolstered and improved, particularly for those who are feeling the financial crisis more keenly or those with a need to work, which inhibits the opportunity to visit.

But to really showcase what a university stands for, students need more than just a tour of campus. Universities need to use face-to-face events as a show-and-tell platform for what they stand for. This can range from providing changing facilities for transgender students to be their authentic selves and providing a quiet space for neurodiverse visitors to reimbursing travel for disadvantaged students to attend open days and making prayer rooms available to those that visit, to ensure people feel their religions and beliefs are respected.

In many ways, post-pandemic, it might have been expected that the lack of physical interaction that defined the lockdown months might have changed students’ need for that moving forward, but in our experience the opposite seems to have happened. In a world where all the talk is about AI and replacing people, what this market actually craves is real, in-person, meaningful interaction. And of course the two sit side by side; one does not negate the other.

Another example of meaningful interaction that university recruiters can call upon is the creation of more opportunities for prospective students to engage online with current students. The main question our student volunteers are asked is: “What’s it like to be a student in Sheffield?” Applicants want to hear a genuine student voice that hasn’t been curated by a university in order to get a real sense of what to expect, and this can be crucial in supporting the decision-making process.

Sustained personalised interaction is important and takes time, but it is an investment universities have to make moving forward. As responsible recruiters we need to change our practices to meet the demands of today’s students, and it is important that we take a more proactive role than ever before in helping to facilitate this. 

Dan Barcroft is director of student recruitment, marketing and admissions at the University of Sheffield, UK.

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