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Be bolder about your mental health offer if you want to convert – and retain – more of this year’s applicants

  • 2 July 2024
  • By Jenny Shaw
  • This HEPI blog was kindly authored by Jenny Shaw, HE External Engagement Director at Unite Students.
  • HEPI and Unite Students are hosting a webinar to mark the launch of the Unite Students Applicant Index 2024 – you can sign up here.

About a third of applicants think it likely that they will not take up their place at university. Their feelings – and the reasons for them – may provide the key not only to conversions of applicants, but also to addressing early-stage withdrawals.

The Applicant Index, now in its third year, provides an annual snapshot of the incoming cohort of first-year undergraduate students in the UK. Many of the questions are repeated each year to track trends in the applicant population, but the survey also includes topical questions that change year by year.

This year, guided by previous findings on school absence and levels of confidence, we wanted to know how many applicants think that they may not, after all, take up their place at university. The results are surprising: a third (32%) of applicants think it likely they won’t go to university -somewhat higher than the actual percentage of unplaced applicants (26%) in the most recently completed application cycle.

The majority thought it only ‘somewhat likely’ that they would not go on to higher education, suggesting concerns that could potentially be mitigated with the right support.

In broad terms, these feelings are more prevalent among male applicants and those who are 19 or over. There is no significant difference between UK and international students, though applicants who are ethnically Chinese (the vast majority of which are international students) are much less likely to think they won’t take up their place, suggesting a higher level of uncertainty among other international student groups.

Respondents were able to select from a list of reasons, with multiple selections possible including ‘other’. Unsurprisingly, financial issues top the list, closely followed by not achieving the required grades. However, the next three may give pause for thought: lack of confidence, mental ill-health and homesickness.

Female applicants are more worried that they will not achieve their grades, and are more likely to cite mental ill-health. Male applicants gave a range of responses but may be more concerned about homesickness (significant to 95% confidence interval).

The data suggests the following demographic groups are particularly vulnerable to withdrawing before taking up their place. Their reasons for considering withdrawal vary, and financial concerns are not the primary reason for some groups.

For some of these groups – including the sizeable population of applicants who do not define themselves as heterosexual – mental ill-health is more significant than financial issues. This opens the possibility to mitigate the concerns and uncertainties for some groups of applicants by creating – or enhancing – reassuring messages about mental health support.

With the vast majority of higher education providers registered or registering for the University Mental Charter this year, it is a good time for universities and other providers to share their good practice with prospective students and their families. As a parent of a 2024 applicant, I have observed that information about mental health tends to be shared on a ‘need to know’ basis. Possibly this is to avoid alarming applicants about the negative aspects of the student experience, but our data suggest that many applicants are already worrying about it.

The data also suggests opportunities for tailored messages for specific groups. Care-experienced applicants are less concerned about achieving their grades, but they are more worried about homesickness and their physical health, and more susceptible to negative media stories. Estranged applicants are more concerned about their mental health and, given their circumstances, may need a specific message about compassionate processes and trauma-informed practice.

These reassurances, including setting out positive but realistic expectations about university services, may not entirely allay applicant concerns; however, they should go some way to reassure applicants, and may also support earlier access to services where relevant.

The higher education sector already has a positive story to tell about its wellbeing, disability and mental health support and its inclusive practice. A whole-university approach suggests that a positive approach to mental health should be embedded in the mainstream, and therefore woven into communications. Such an approach goes beyond the listing of services, and portrays the university as a place to thrive.

This year’s applicants, many of whom have lost social and educational opportunities in their early teens due to Covid, would benefit from further reassurances against their specific concerns. Our data suggest that doing so will support more of them to enrol in higher education, and to flourish once they arrive.

The Unite Students / HEPI Applicant Index 2024 will be published on 16 July – sign up to HEPI’s launch webinar here.

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