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What do university applicants want from their higher education institutions?

  • 24 May 2021
  • By Dan Benyon

This blog was kindly contributed by Dan Beynon, Head of Education at SMRS, which works with more than 30 universities supporting them with strategic marketing and consultancy. Dan has been working with universities in the UK and internationally for the last 21 years. 

SMRS, in partnership with the Universities Marketing Forum (UMF) and 38 universities from across the UK, have just completed a significant piece of syndicated research into the application experiences and future intentions of more than 26,000 prospective undergraduate students looking to start courses in the autumn of 2021. These applicants have all had the unusual experience of applying for a university place during lockdown and our research centred on a few key questions: when is the right time to restart on-campus events for prospective students in the UK; and if they were invited, would they want to come and what kind of experience would they want? With almost 40 universities and the Universities Marketing Forum signed up, we conducted the research in April 2021.

Designed to allow respondents to reflect on their journey so far, their experiences of virtual events and information sources, as well as the impact of less face-to-face contact, it looked at key criteria in decision making and then moved on to focus on the participants’ intentions relating to attending campus-based events in person, and the type of experience they would look for when that time comes.

The survey focused on the domestic undergraduate market in the UK. The survey respondents came from right across the UK, with the highest percentages in London, the South-East and Scotland, and with the vast majority (75%) aged 17 or 18 and two-thirds female. 

There were key themes that emerged from this research and we have highlighted three below.  

First, a clear indication of the respondents’ desire to have face-to-face events. In this area, the findings from the research were conclusive. Overwhelmingly, people are looking forward to the return of campus-based events. A whopping 90% of those surveyed are interested in physically visiting a campus and university facilities as soon as restrictions allow while 85% felt that engagement in these events would make them more confident in accepting an offer from a university.

Secondly, the respondents reflected on the range of virtual events and experiences that had been provided. While campus visits have not generally been possible, universities have used virtual events to provide prospective students with a version of the ever-popular open day experience. However, the feedback on these virtual events was not as positive as we would have hoped and 31% of respondents chose not to attend a virtual event. While everyone in the sector is aware of the Herculean efforts that went into delivering a whole range of virtual experiences in double-quick time, our research identified the digital-only student experience to be underwhelming. The respondents often found virtual events too generic and some said they could find the same level of information elsewhere online.

There were valuable insights from students on how they would like to see the sector improve their online offering. To achieve this, virtual event platforms, content and – crucially – interactivity need improvement. Interactivity was described specifically as the opportunity to engage with tutors, peers, alumni and with different types of content that enable the student experience to be brought to life more effectively in a virtual world. Although respondents expressed a strong preference for campus-based events they also expect there to be a blended approach at some points in the cycle in the future. So now is the time for us all to focus on making those virtual engagements as impactful and valuable as possible for both potential students and universities.

The third theme was communications. It has been incredibly challenging to provide timely, accurate and personable communications over the last year. But students want reassurance and support, along with the opportunity to engage in a variety of ways. Email is one part, but providing other engagement opportunities like consultations, live Q&As and webinars alongside traditional communications all help to alleviate student concerns.

The survey responses included statements like this one:

It would be useful if they could provide more information about how the pandemic is going to affect learning next year and more information on blended learning.

When asked what improvements universities could make to meet prospective student needs, overwhelmingly respondents asked for more communication, whether that’s real-time digital interaction through live-chats or providing up-to-date information about what to expect on starting university in 2021. What will it really be like? Will they be on campus, or learning from home? Even though these questions may be impossible for institutions to answer definitively, keeping in touch, being transparent and providing what information is possible will all help to reassure and provide greater clarity in uncertain times

It has been an extraordinary time for everyone over the last 15 months. It’s clearly had a huge impact on our respondents’ experiences of applying to university. With little-to-no campus-based or face-to-face experiences, this cohort have made probably the biggest decision of their life up to now through a screen. This project has helped to understand more about what has worked well and positively impacted on experiences and what has not worked so well. It has also allowed us to understand attitudes towards attending face-to-face events again. 

The key message from the research is that most people surveyed want to return to campus-based activities as soon as permitted, so let’s give students the option to visit campus in person​. Alongside this, universities should focus on making virtual events better, more interactive and an integrated part of the future applicant experience​. Keeping the dialogue open​ is also important and we can do this by informing, connecting and empathising, reassuring but not over promising. 

The undergraduate students starting university in 2021 will be some of the least experienced learners to have set out on a degree course. So their transition is likely to be harder than for any previous cohort. It will be crucial to help them understand what will happen when they begin their courses and to work hard on how we can help them prepare for a successful experience.

We are grateful to all the universities that were involved in this research.

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