Student Recruitment: Perspectives from the sector

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When you think of Higher Education student recruitment, it’s hard not to think about open days, school liaison and piles of prospectuses. Undoubtedly this is a dated view; yet the need to physically connect with your audience has always dominated student recruitment activity. At least until 2020.

Although virtual open days and the like have been around for a while, it was the forced hand by COVID-19 which has led to the most radical changes in practice. The sector has adjusted, retooled and in many instances thrived. So, what has happened during this time? And what have we learned as a sector?

A huge thank you to Andrea Caulfield-Smith, Executive Director of Marketing, Recruitment and Admissions at Staffordshire University, and Mark Garratt, Global Director International Student Recruitment at the University of Law, and Chair of CASE Europe Universities Marketing Forum, for sharing their thoughts on what has been an eventful 18 months. Our interviewees share diverse and interesting backgrounds which have seen them work for both HEIs and the private sector, with Mark’s track record including the University of Bradford, City University London, British Airways and launching Confused.com and Andrea’s Staffordshire University, easyJet and American Express.                              


What are the key learnings for student recruitment since the pandemic?                                

Andrea Caulfield-Smith: The past 12 months have been a rollercoaster for students with the pandemic impacting schooling, exams and the ability to visit and physically interact with universities. We’ve been required to change from face to face to online learning practically overnight (something for Staffs with our Digital mindset, went seamlessly) and it’s highlighted the importance of both methods of interaction. When you think about recruitment, it can be a similar journey whether it’s for a student or customer acquisition. Going digital made things very competitive. My background in working for a highly customer centric industry ensured we interacted with students very quickly and considerately. Within days we were online, had open days running and were able to take graduation ceremonies online too.                         

COVID-19 has brought challenges but also opportunities. Staffordshire University has built a strong reputation for innovation and we are striving to become the UK’s foremost digital university. 

Digital has been part of Staffordshire’s DNA for more than half a century. We were the first UK university to launch a computing degree in the 1960s and more recently, we became the first UK university to move to the cloud. We were the first to introduce an AI-powered digital assistant for our students in the form of Beacon, and we were first to market with both undergraduate and postgraduate Esports courses.       

Going forward, we are also aware that the pandemic has exacerbated gaps in social mobility. At Staffordshire we put social mobility at the heart of our purpose and widening participation is very important to us (participation rates in HE are between 16-28% in Stoke-on-Trent compared to more than 50% nationally). Digital poverty is a real concern, which is why during the pandemic the University stepped in to provide students with laptop loans and free access to software that they’d usually find on campus. We also gave students the opportunity to upskill where needed, providing easily accessible digital learning resources and virtual digital support. This enabled many students to become proficient using Microsoft Office, Adobe, and AutoDesk software, which supports their employability longer term.                                         

Mark Garratt: Firstly, what happened was all universities were forced into blended learning. This demonstrated that the sector can move in an agile way if it wants to. The enforced lockdowns and usage of technology and digital has allowed students to continue learning in a blended way. This has always been a possibility given the tools but its only now that the digital vision has become a reality. The pandemic has been a terrible time for many reasons. What it has inadvertently provided is an opportunity for young people to learn digital skills which will stand them in good stead for the future. For this generation to have experienced this difficult period and still have achieved many great things also shows an incredible level of resilience.                           

Should student recruitment remain digital first?                               

ACS: It’s going to be about striking a balance. I think that the approach should always put us where our potential customers want us to be. Digital has a huge role to play, both in terms of finding and nurturing our potential customers but we know that face-to-face encounters with a university are extremely powerful. Some syndicated research that we did in April showed an overwhelming desire to get back onto campus for open days with 62% preferring on campus only events 34% preferring a blended approach and only 4% wanting to continue virtual only. The pandemic has accelerated several things we already had in motion. For instance, it ensured we had to quickly develop our online open day platform. Many of our courses are also vocationally focused and so giving prospective students the option to visit the campus (if it is safe to do so) and to see our state-of-the-art facilities and equipment in person remains very important. It’s also reassuring for parents, as influencers, to see and get a feel for where their child will be studying.                      

MG: I think a blended approach is going to work best for everyone involved. The Universities Marketing Forum working with marketing agency SMRS conducted research with 38 universities and 26,000 prospective students. The research clearly showed there is a thirst for students to come back to campus and find out about the physical environment of universities. From a student recruitment perspective, we should continue to blend virtual open days with the on campus. There is a huge opportunity, especially with international student recruitment to use digital assets during the sales process rather than it just being a sales team going out to different markets.                            


Will international student recruitment flourish or flounder over the next few years?                        

ACS: The UK continues to be an attractive place for international students. The Government’s recent international strategy shows growth to 600,000 students by 2030 with education exports to rise to £30b a year; there unquestionably must be a focus on this. The presence of international students remains important for UK HE with students immersing themselves in a new culture, and for home students having international cultures on campus.                       

This year will be challenging but ultimately will allow international student recruitment to flourish. Students are very driven and are prepared to wait for the opportunity.                       

MG: I think it will continue to flourish. The demand for HE around the world continues apace. Forecasts show that the number of students in HE around the world will double with international students rising from 5m to 7m. So we can safely say there is still that demand. There are some short-term challenges to overcome, but also some significant opportunities if we can get it right. The continued rise of middle classes globally provides an avenue which the UK has to position itself to benefit from.                         


Should the role of marketing play an even more significant role for the sector to build back better?   

ACS: The pandemic on the back of the demographic dip has seen the sector notch up in terms of competitiveness, making it harder to stand out. Developing a strong brand and key USPs will be key to gaining competitive advantage. Engagement marketing is playing a more and more important role in the sector so its key to keep developing and hyper personalising this journey as part of a robust marketing strategy. It’s also going to be important to know our demographics and data inside out as the intake diversifies in age as well as growing in the traditional 18-year-old school leaver market. We need to make sure messaging and channel mix is right for each group and is tailored to the different cycles rather than taking a traditional ‘one cycle’ approach to marketing activity.                                

The ability to flex and adapt marketing strategy to fit the needs of an ever-changing sector and world have never been more important. This has created a new mindset of being responsive and ready. COVID has shown us how things can change almost overnight. As a digitally driven university, Staffordshire embraced and adapted to a sector leading digital approach very quickly, pivoting to a virtual vs physical offering.            

MG: Absolutely. I am a firm advocate for why marketers need to be at the top table of the executive team. Marcomms needs to be on the same level as Finance, HR, IT; it’s a discipline which can have a huge impact on the reputation of an institution globally. US and Australian HEIs are ahead of the game with this. There is a slow shift taking place but hopefully the process of having more of an executive Marcomms presence will accelerate from here on. Currently there are less than 10% on UK HEI Executive Boards and I’d like us to get to the target of 75% by 2030. We only have to look at the biggest and most successful businesses and see the role of the CMO in FTSE100 organisations. One of the challenges with marketing in HE has been moving the perception away from visuals to evidence-based data. I joined HE 13 years ago when joined CRM was not important. Now it forms the bedrock for many of the decisions taken and guides the actions for how larger marketing budgets are being used.                         


Any advice on which skills prospective board level executive Marketing/Student Recruitment/Admissions professionals should be honing?                          

ACS: Being new to the sector, I wanted to get up to speed with HE as quick as possible. One of the benefits my background has brought is positive disruptive behaviour. I feel it’s important to challenge the status quo to find new ways of constantly moving forwards. The pandemic has shown the world can change in a heartbeat and nobody would have envisaged the impact that COVID-19 would have across the world. Horizon scanning on the changes to the sector which could impact the recruitment cycle have never been more important, being one step ahead and ready to pivot to ensure marketing strategies stay relevant. It’s critical to always ensure positive and proactive promotion of our university as a place for education - for everyone.                             

MG: Number one is being able to develop and deliver strategic thinking. A critical skill to focus on is how to articulate a strategy and then how that strategy is going to be delivered. Number two is the ability to influence internally in a large complex organisation. Effective stakeholder engagement is really important when operating at the senior levels of an HEI. Number three is data analytics. The ability to take large amounts of data and communicate them to a senior level. This is becoming an increasingly important requirement for leaders within the sector and its impact on the future should not be underestimated.