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Isolation Generation – looking ahead to the sector’s unique recruitment challenge.

  • 23 September 2020
  • By Sarah Barr Miller & Josephine Hansom

This blog was kindly contributed by Sarah Barr Miller, Head of Insight and Consultancy at UCAS Media and Josephine Hansom, Managing Director of Insight at YouthSight.

Supporting undergraduate applicants who were due to sit exams in the summer and then start university this autumn has been top of the agenda for most people working in admissions, recruitment and advisory roles for the last six months. But now the challenge has moved on. The next cohort has just started in Year 13 / S6 and they are playing catch-up – both academically and in their research for university choices. Several big decisions that will have significant impacts on their futures are fast approaching. Now our focus must shift towards enabling individuals to make the right choices for them – and to do that it is vital to understand their mindset, their ambition and provide them with the right tools to make informed choices.

Anyone involved in advising applicants in the 2021 cycle will need to have an understanding of seemingly basic questions. Will they still want to go to university? How will sources of information help guide their choices? And how have expectations of what a university experience entails changed?

The chance for universities and colleges to engage with prospective students became more constrained as Open Days went online and schools doubled down on teaching. The opportunities for applicants to meaningfully connect with current students also moved onto digital platforms like Unibuddy.

Student recruitment and admissions departments are now facing a second unique recruitment challenge in as many years, with more limitations on face-to-face engagement than ever before. We hope that our joint UCAS–YouthSight research will help. Our survey went to a representative sample of UCAS’ pre-applicant database. This is made of Year 12s going on to Year 13 – of which there are over 212,000 – who have registered with UCAS indicating they want to apply for study starting in 2021.  

The Year 12 Mindset

Let’s start with the good news. The demand to progress is clear. Despite the cancellation of physical events, the number of pre-applicants registering with UCAS is at a record level and the vast majority (80%) said in our survey that they are still set on heading to university in 2021, while the remaining 20% are still unsure and assessing their options. This 20% split evenly between those exploring alternatives, such as apprenticeships, while the other 10% is unsure of attending next year at all.

UCAS data from years gone by show that demand for higher education can withstand recession (and actually increase for some groups of students, particularly mature applicants), but this doubt may lead some to bide their time, or hedge their bets.

2021 choices: pre-applicants are still making up their minds

Almost 90% of next year’s applicants are already in the advanced research stages of their application but only 27% have already chosen their final five higher education courses.

We might have expected that number to be higher, but with 59% reporting that they do not have enough information to make their decisions, it is clear there is an immediate need for more targeted information and advice. As pre-applicants undertake their research, they are casting their net beyond friends and family to find new opinions. There is obvious growth in virtual Open Days and virtual school events, but university websites are now seen as more important by 57% of all students. UCAS, too, by more than 40%.

At the other end are parents and the recommendations from friends, which are comparatively less influential. Only 1% of pre-applicants told us their parents were now more influential when making their choices and just 9% said the same about friends. Applicants are now placing their trust directly with first parties. For the higher education sector, it means more scrutiny of their messaging, but also more demand.


Next year’s applicants are very aware of what is coming for the economy.

More than half of all Year 12s said since the lockdown they now assign more importance to ‘high graduate employment rates’. A fifth, think the same for placement years. This year’s applicants are looking for recession-proof degrees more than ever, and the onus is on universities and colleges to convince them of their own efficacy.

On the domestic side, 10% say it is now less important to live with their parents during study and a 15% rise in looking for universities with a ‘great social scene’. Perhaps the impact of being part of an isolation generation, most of whose world shrank to their family’s four walls during lockdown, is that next year’s applicants’ thirst for adventure has grown. The challenge for universities will be how to first develop an innovative social offering in the context of social distancing and changing restrictions and then to showcase effectively this to applicants – no small task.

They are asking for more from a sector already under the strain of so much unexpected change: for better and more frequent information, for invincible degrees that will help them withstand a recession and a social scene to go alongside it.

So, what now?

Today’s students are Gen Z and the sector should base their assumptions on the fact that they are the most agile and digitally-focussed customers they have come across. They want the answer to everything in their pocket – and they expect it now.

The rush to deliver Open Days and support recruitment activities online to bridge the gap created by the cancellation of face-to-face events now presents an opportunity to create lasting and meaningful digital experiences. UCAS will be ready to support everyone to consider their options for next year, building on our recent innovations such as Facebook Live events, enhanced UCAS Hub content and personalised interactions with current students. Some groups will need even more tailored information at the right time; our insight suggests those who are likely to be the first in their family to enter higher education are more nervous than most about writing a personal statement, for example.

By truly appreciating and understanding the position that the next cohort find themselves in throughout the next 12 months, their aspirations and how they hope to achieve them, the collective education sector can enable them to succeed and continue to rise to the challenges of our new world.

1 comment

  1. David Tymms says:

    Thanks Sarah. A couple of really interesting bits of data in here on pre-applicants and seems to support the view that HE is counter-cyclical. Please keep these blogs coming.

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