Skip to content
The UK's only independent think tank devoted to higher education.

Great expectations

  • 17 March 2022
  • By Aimee Kleinman and Tim Landucci

This blog was written by Aimee Kleinman and Tim Landucci, Education Marketing Consultants at SMRS. SMRS is a marketing agency that works with universities on strategic marketing and consultancy. Aimee and Tim are happy to discuss their research via via the following address: [email protected]. SMRS is also on Twitter @smrsltd.

How have young people found the journey to university while the world responds to COVID-19? To find out, we asked 34,000 applicants across 47 UK universities.

Over the last 12 months and in collaboration with the CASE Universities Marketing Forum, SMRS have carried out two sector wide, syndicated research projects looking at the behaviours of future undergraduate students who are currently applying to enrol at university in both the 2020/21 and 2021/22 academic years.

With an overall sample of 34,000 responses collated from 47 universities and featuring representation from all parts of the UK and a variety of different mission groups, the research has provided a hugely valuable and unique insight to help inform student recruitment and enhance and improve the student journey and experience.

With such a significant and representative sample, charting two of the most unpredictable and complex undergraduate recruitment cycles we’ve ever seen, what has the research shown us in terms of how student expectations have changed, and what can we take from this? SMRS’s Education Marketing Consultants, Aimee Kleinman and Tim Landucci share their thoughts.

Understand how your audience has changed

What has become clear from this research is the importance of knowing your audience and really understanding different behaviours – differences that impact everything from attendance at an event to the time spent researching study options, as well as individual marketing preferences or sources of information. 

Even in the last year this has changed considerably, for instance, we can see gender differences regarding research, application timeframes and the materials used to inform decision-making and key times in consideration. We have also seen more regional and mission group differences around areas such as funding and information sources this time, which are important to consider, particularly at a time when the cost of living is increasing so much for all of us. 

Being back on campus 

One constant is that learning on campus is vitally important to future undergraduates, many of whom long to return to campus-based learning and embracing university life in person. Only a very small proportion of the sample would prefer to learn online and most would re-evaluate their decision to enrol should learning move to being fully remote again, or another national lockdown be imposed.

This preference is also reflected in physical events like open days, where being on campus is clearly preferred to virtual alternatives. However, what has changed is an acceptance that a virtual option suits certain types of students and at certain times of the year. Therefore, quality options, regardless of format, are important, especially as we continue to contend with uncertainty.

Information seekers

In the last year, the sources of information used by prospective students while considering their study options have evolved. Whereas 12 months ago, students were consulting a broad range of channels (search, course listings, etc.), we’ve now seen a shift to a much heavier reliance on the use of university websites as a primary source of information. It appears that in a time where accurate information is so important, the university is seen as the best source.

The need for accuracy stems from a period of huge uncertainty for young people, where clarity has not always been available as the education sector grappled with an evolving response to the pandemic. It’s understandable that, as a result, young people have a stronger desire for certainty and we’ve seen this manifest in a renewed focus on the prospectus, a tangible and authoritative source of information. Many more students looking to enrol this year are turning to the prospectus, in both print and digital formats, to potentially fill the gap left by fewer opportunities to visit campuses and engage with universities personally. 

Authenticity is powerful

There is an important element of trust that is also apparent. Prospective students are seeking authoritative sources of information, but those that are also authentic. When it has not been possible to experience a university for themselves, an honest view from current students helps to reassure them and support them to make informed decisions. 

Young people are keenly aware of marketing tactics and how glamorous something can be made to appear. Respondents to our research have told us they want to know what it’s really like, and for them, that has to be directly from students. They’ve likened the virtual experience to an online flat viewing, where the angles and lighting are always just right, obscuring any potential imperfections.

Personalised experiences are expected 

The prospective student experience has been challenging over the course of the pandemic, but this period has shaped future expectations. The evolving perspective of students across our two waves of research has seen students expecting a much higher degree of personalisation in their interactions with universities. 

The digital pivot has potentially removed or reduced the opportunities for students to interact directly with universities, but there is an expectation that this will change, whether through more proactive feedback, the opportunity to be given feedback, or reassurance – a higher level of personalisation needs to be considered. Re-introducing personalised engagements will strengthen relationships with prospective students and help them feel more valued as individuals.

The ever-rising importance of the student experience

Indeed, student experience is highlighted as more important to prospective students for the most recent cycle than university reputation, emphasising the level of importance they place on experience.

In summary, although the pandemic has caused huge upheaval to prospective students, many of the key learnings we’ve identified through these two syndicated research projects can help universities shape and improve the student journey and experiences, now and in the future.

See HEPI’s recent blog post, ‘On Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine: A Call to Action for the UK Higher Education Sector’ . Dr Uilleam Blacker from UCL shares how the UK can better support Ukrainian students and academics.

Get our updates via email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *