Sleeping giants awake as universities take a different view

As the number of 18 year olds in the United Kingdom drops, universities and colleges across the country have refocused their thinking to ensure the risks around student recruitment are mitigated.


By the time we reach 2020, we’ll potentially see 120,000 fewer students, compared to the peak in 2009. That’s the equivalent of losing the combined student population of the largest universities in Manchester, Birmingham, and Edinburgh.

But now is exactly the time to take a longer view. Clearly that trend will reverse, and numbers will start to increase in a couple of years – it’s now that universities should ensure they’re best placed
to take advantage of both the dip and rise in fortunes. At UCAS Media, we’re starting to see some universities taking a different approach to do just that.

With so many statistics, and many of them focusing on the negatives, looking for more data may not be the first thing on the minds of university strategists. But the power of data and insight to transform businesses is no secret. It’s been driving retail success since the 1990s, and almost every online business since the dotcom boom.

Nevertheless, only now, as we start to see the challenges in our sector, are higher education providers really starting to take notice.

Whether the evidence of triumph in other sectors has finally disturbed a sleeping giant, or impending challenges have ignited action, higher education providers are starting to ask for help.

UCAS case study: a new strategy for an old university

Picture the scene at one of the country’s major university powers. A heritage dating back to the 1900s, a history of success, and a resistance to market forces. A healthy national attraction for students from all over the UK.

Now picture the same scene when applications began to fall, seemingly without reason, and when competitors began to make ground, and overtake. A recruitment strategy that’s always delivered, and faith in the status quo, had invited opposition where it needn’t have ever materialised.

Turning to UCAS, the university’s senior team drafted in a team of consultants and analysts to search for solutions. Utilising our specialist in-house, analytical expertise, we unearthed new
insights and projections designed to give an indication of what’s around the corner – for the provider itself, and the sector as a whole.

Sometimes, the home truths can hurt. Eye-opening forecasting highlighted key subject areas where the university was on a downward curve. Overlaying subject performance with untapped markets, however, showed clear marriages which offered some hope for application levels to certain areas. While the university had never needed to market itself locally, it was an opportunity wasted in a sector that increasingly demands no stone left unturned.

The insight driven out of this project shaped a new direction fort the recruitment strategy, applicable over the Confirmation and Clearing period, which reversed a worrying trend before its
impact had too big an effect.


UCAS case study: uncovering an inner strength

Ask any marketer what their first port of call is on a new project, and they’ll likely tell you it’s finding the USP. A business without a unique selling point is facing uphill when it comes to finding its
differentiation from the competition, specialism, and distinctive pull factors.

But the shifting sands of higher education can render USPs worryingly fluid, as market and sector forces alter the value of subjects, qualifications, and locations.

In hunting for its current USP, another university leant on the expertise and experience of UCAS to put its competitive advantage to work. Combining the knowledge of our analysts and consultants and our readily available student decision report, a picture became clear that this university’s appeal was quite distinct. Employability. A known strength, of course, but a USP?

New messaging was designed and implemented in the same cycle, with the employability thread stitching every campaign together. But the timing was also carefully chosen, after findings from another UCAS report which forecast the prime recruitment periods for this university. Clearing was important, of course, but it was the shift to applying subject-specific messaging in week two, following that all important A level results day, that made
all the difference.

This revision of both the messaging and the timing yielded a much stronger conversion rate than the previous period, and an uplift in the university’s perceived weak areas.

In both instances, the universities had an appetite for change, they just needed the right partner with the skill and expertise to support them. Our data and tools are ready to help higher
education providers navigate the difficult years to come, and set the ship steady for the longer term too.


Sander Kristel is Executive Director for UCAS Media 



Fewer 18 year olds:
Universities by size:
Decline in applications: