YouGovThe ‘new normal’ is changing student priorities

The ‘new normal’ is changing student priorities


The latest research from YouGov shows that innovative online courses, alumni case studies and being taught skills are emerging as the biggest drivers for attracting undergraduates

Universities must convince potential students they can still deliver a transformative life and learning experience and provide the relevant skills for an increasingly competitive jobs market.

That is the verdict of Ian Neale, a research director in YouGov’s international research data and analytics group. Neale says that the pandemic had left students with a lot of uncertainty, not only about what the university experience would now be like, but also their job prospects after graduation.

“People go to university for the experience. We did a survey of people who have been to university and 76 per cent said their degree was worth it for the social experience they had as a student,” he explains.

“Freshers’ Week in September will be mainly via Zoom – that’s a very, very different student experience. If everyone’s just sat at home doing their degree you don’t have that social side that goes alongside the learning experience.”

How universities manage the blended learning experience and enable students to interact in light of new pandemic restrictions could be key in attracting undergraduates.

Blended learning – where students have a mix of online and traditional, face-to-face teaching – is already common on many tertiary courses in some form, for example offering online access to recordings of lectures.

An October 2019 report from YouGov and software company TechnologyOne found that more than 90 per cent of university students considered it a high priority to have reliable online access to resources such as timetables, course materials and exam results. However, only 11 per cent of the 1,026 students surveyed categorised the use of technology on their courses as “innovative”. It was classed as “functional” by 65 per cent of students.

“There’s going to have to be quite a steep learning curve on the delivery side and how that’s going to impact the experience is obviously a bit of an unknown,” says Neale.

As universities work out the best ways to provide an engaging learning experience during their digital transformations, there could be opportunities to attract students for those institutions that emphasise their “innovation” credentials.

Previous YouGov research about the factors that influenced a student’s choice of university found that the overall reputation was the most important factor, followed by location and facilities.

“Location is a bit arbitrary at the moment, if you’re not going to be able to or want to go there. Much further down the list, in sixth place, was the university’s approach to learning. And in ninth place was the flexibility in how you can learn,” says Neale.

“Traditionally, those factors are far less important to student choice, but I would imagine they're going to be far more important now. I think a university's approach to digital learning will be paramount.”

Against the backdrop of a global recession, recently graduated students face a hugely-competitive jobs market. The UK officially moved into recession in August after the economy shrank more than 20 per cent compared with the first three months of the year.

A July 2020 YouGov study of 1,005 businesses found that 61 per cent have cancelled some or all of their work placements. Alongside this YouGov’s research with the CIPD shows that there has also been a 50 per cent increase in the number of employers that are going to make redundancies.

“We did a survey of 5,000 students approaching their graduation and two thirds of them have had their job applications paused or withdrawn,” says Neale.

“Before the pandemic, 49 per cent of students approaching graduation were confident of securing a job, but that has dropped to one third. So, the prospects for people leaving university at the moment are not great.”

Despite the UK government removing the proposed 5 per cent cap on English universities’ student growth, in-demand institutions and courses remain oversubscribed. This, along with T level technical qualifications arriving in September, will require universities to move quickly to attract students who are not able to pursue their first-choice courses but who are now perhaps considering a wider range of options. The best way to do this, says Neale, is to focus on your key differentiators.

“If you’re outside the top 10 in the league tables, it is incredibly competitive for how you market yourself and how you badge yourself. As it becomes more competitive, universities will have to work harder to differentiate themselves, something universities haven’t always done,” he says.

“If you look at Teesside University as an example, they describe themselves as ‘dynamic, energetic, and innovative’. It’s not just about having the highest league table ranking, but they’ve been working hard to say ‘it's about innovation, it's about dynamism, it's about that experience’. In the current climate, that sort of brand recognition could be very valuable.

Neale also cites the University of Plymouth, which emphasises its engagement with business and its aim to deliver economic, social and cultural benefits.

Drawing on the positive experiences of graduates is another effective way for universities to reassure potential students.

“When we’ve done research with specific universities about why students choose where to go, the students found it quite important that there were case studies or videos from alumni,” he says.

“Students really value hearing about their experience at the university but also what it enabled them to do afterwards.”

Universities should also consider the amount of support they are providing to students throughout their time at the institution, says Neale, in particular to help them find jobs after graduation, and when offering mental health services.

Because students are evaluating how likely an institution is to help them find a job against an uncertain market, universities that teach new knowledge and skills will be highly prized.

Environmental issues are increasingly prominent for young people today and universities are attuned to these issues. Among other sustainability awardsManchester Metropolitan University has the distinction of coming first in the People & Planet University League, a ranking of UK universities’ environmental and ethical performance.

Linking this to the economy and future skills could also be important. “We’re doing some research with employers about environmental sustainability and green skills, which are the skills a person might need to do their job in a sustainable way,” Neale adds.

“One area for universities to tailor their offering is to offer something like green skills, not just a subject about it, but as a theme that cuts across everything. The government has set a target to cut greenhouse gas emissions to almost zero by 2050, so that’s going to be a developing area and it might be useful for a graduate to say they have those green skills.”

Those universities that embrace civic engagement could also appeal to a generation of socially conscious undergraduates.

“Universities play a key role as a big local employer but sometimes they don’t understand what the local issues are,” says Mr Neale.

“By asking different stakeholders what they think of the university and what they want from the university, they can start to understand their locality much better and decide which local issues they can focus on.”


Universities are incredibly important economically and socially. In these testing times, they can help the UK build back a better economy. The marketplace that universities operate in is increasingly competitive and to survive and growth relies in their ability to attract students, partners and funding. To do this a focus on a universities brand and building a differentiated identity is paramount.

Based on YouGov’s extensive surveys and research, it is advising universities to:

  1. Find their USPs
    What are your university’s strengths? Is it one or more of an area of study, a societal issue or an experience? Find what makes your institution stand out and make your communications with prospective students about that
  2. Tell their stories consistently
    All universities will have an ethos or a back story that engages people. Focus on what yours is and consistently telling it in your marketing communications
  3. Understand how they compare to other institutions
    Find out how your institution is perceived and how it compares to others. Analysing other universities can also help you realise your key differentiators
  4. Segment their message
    Work out what messages resonate for which groups within your target audience. These groups could be potential students, or other key decision makers, such as parents and teachers


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