Clearing: a one-size-fits-all logic dominates

As clearing budgets spiral, universities risk prioritising headcount over finding the right fit for their brand, warns Simon Pride

August 13, 2015
The Project Twins illustration (13 August 2015)
Source: The Project Twins

Have you ever been to the summer sales and come back with a bag of stuff, only to wake up the next day and wonder what happened? The clothes don’t fit, the colours are wrong and the cut was never going to suit you in the first place: what possessed you?

We’d like to think that clearing, which officially starts today, has little in common with such experiences. After all, choosing a university and a course through clearing is probably one of the most important and expensive decisions a prospective student will ever make. The consequences of a bad decision could last a lifetime.

Entry via clearing used to be the exception. It was confined to the minority of students who hadn’t secured places through the usual process or a few who decided to trade up or down based on their exam results. And for universities it was a useful way to top up numbers on low recruiting courses.

But clearing is now approaching the norm. This year, Ucas expects to process some 100,000 people – or 15 per cent of all university applicants – through clearing: the largest proportion ever. In recent years, it has also seen an increase of nearly 30 per cent in direct applications via clearing, from students who bypassed the usual recruitment cycle and only just got around to applying at this late stage. Consequently, clearing actually occupies the whole of July and August.

This matters a lot. I work in higher education marketing at a small, specialist arts university with some 3,500 students. We are hardly a major player with deep pockets. Yet since last autumn, I’ve been called up weekly by agencies and media owners trying to sell me expensive clearing packages, to help me recruit the highest possible number of students. I can only imagine the almost daily barrage of sales calls the bigger institutions must have to field. Am I the only one feeling distinctly uneasy about this?

Ucas opened its book on 2015 clearing packages on 16 December 2014. The key inventory, such as banner placement on the course search tool, will set you back £11,250 for prime position. Add in some of the other options and you could easily spend £50,000. Another major player in the clearing market, a social and digital advertising agency, offers packages for up to £90,000. And it is getting increasingly sophisticated – another company is now using consumer credit data to target would-be students who have their funding organised but don’t have a place.

Even if I wanted to play this game, I wouldn’t be able to do it on my budgets. But there is a wider issue here. The sums of money that are now being spent on clearing are accounting for an increasingly large chunk of universities’ marketing budgets. This means that we, as higher education marketers, are getting ever more tactical and obsessed with short-term sales rather than actually presenting the arguments and information necessary to help people make the right decision for them. We all know that the student who makes the right choice is more than likely also to be the student who is retained – yet we all engage in this bunfight to fill places.

In the commercial sector, where my background lies, marketers understand that you can’t build a sustainable business by an over-reliance on tactical marketing, such as short-term promotions and price drops. Your marketing also needs to be strategic: you need to put the arguments for your brand forward in compelling and engaging ways, and answer the question of why this brand is the right one for that particular person. Even discount retailers run brand development campaigns that attempt to do this.

Universities have so much on their plates, not least an uncertain funding and regulatory environment, a downturn in the 16-18-year-old demographic, visa issues for international students and increasing competition from alternative routes such as apprenticeships and employer-sponsored education. So why are we interested only in bums on seats, instead of setting out where we stand in this shifting landscape, and recruiting accordingly?

There is a reason the best higher education marketers put in so much effort throughout the year at Ucas events, open days, school visits and trips abroad. There is also a reason we put so much love into our websites and social media. And that is that we want to present an honest and truthful representation of our institution – specifically in order to attract the right students for us. It is incumbent on all of us to remember that we are offering a highly individual and complex product, not selling higher education by the yard.

Simon Pride is head of marketing and communications at Arts University Bournemouth.

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Print headline: Clearing: the sector’s one-size-fits-all logic will be its undoing

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