Decisions, decisions - University Business

By Avarina Wilson-Dyer-Gough

As featured in University Business by Avarina Wilson-Dyer-Gough and Max du Bois.

With summer firmly behind us, many sixth form students are now seriously focusing their attention on the next stage of their lives, university. 

This decision process is a fascinating one, impacted by so many variables that combine emotional pulls and well calculated research. As a consequence we decided to set out to find out what actually matters to young people when making this important decision. Where do they look, who do they talk to and what actually helps shape their decisions? We then looked at what universities could do to better communicate their unique offering and help students make informed decisions. 

The UK university sector is quite unique. Whilst in the US there appears to be a stampede to study overseas, with some 289,000 American students spending part or all of their most recent year in college overseas, UK students on the other hand are keen to stay in the UK and embrace the UK university experience. 

Our focus group, made up of high A and A* scorers in their GCSE, were keen to share their excitement and the challenges they are encountering as they start picking their way through the universities on offer.

What is the point of university? 

The group we spoke to have always wanted to go to university. It is seen as an obligation, an expected next step, by their parents as well as themselves. At this stage in their selection process, they are starry eyed. University is seen as a way of having new experiences, whether that is meeting new people, studying something they find interesting or gaining a new sense of independence. 

In second place, University is seen as a way to gain the necessary qualifications and skills they will need to get the jobs they want. However, while some have firm careers in mind, most will choose their course based on what they are interested in, not their perceived end career. While young people start with these focuses, and as with all high involvement sales, their emphasis will change over the purchasing cycle. 

Impact of tuition fees

The rise in tuition fees and proposed changes to maintenance grants haven’t stopped record numbers of students signing up, however the young people questioned are more conscious of the level of debt they will undertake and pay back afterwards. So much so that the participants actively discussed the need to work part-time while at university to assist with the costs.

However for the participants interviewed they have always planned to go to university regardless of the increased costs. They still want to move away from home and pay more because it is seen as an integral part of the university experience. They view this independence, both physically and financially, as an important stage in their evolution,  teaching them new skills and honing their worldview. 

Interestingly, one of the perceived benefits of the rise in costs is the belief that it has led to a filtering of applicants. As a consequence there is a sense that the learning experience will be improved due to the higher dedication level of students attending. However the perceived percentage of people attending university isn’t necessarily lower than before the rise in fees. 

Finding true insights 

Young people are led by a desire to get true insight on a university. They want to see what the university is actually like from the students themselves instead of only seeing what the university wants them to see. As a consequence chat rooms, websites and word-of-mouth are very important sources of information.   

Course-led rankings 

Whilst league tables are viewed as an additional tool to assist the research process, they are by no means viewed as the most important tool. In fact the subject ranking is deemed more important to young people than the university’s ranking because they are more interested in the course and how it is ranked. A higher position of a university doesn’t always mean that it is good for a particular subject or that it is necessarily better than another university. 

Parent Power 

Parents do have some degree of influence, however our participants firmly believe the end decision rests with them. They are willing to take advice, they are open to suggestions and they are keen to keep an open mind, however they will not be easily swayed, even by parents, as they feel university life has changed since their parents attended as has their criteria for choice.

Deciding Factors 

Location is important given the amount of time the students will be spending at university, however in joint first comes the course as a leading factor in their decisions. Our participants stated that the course was why they were going to university and paying high costs therefore they would choose a university for its course content and staff. Interestingly, when making the final decision, they would prioritise the course over the social side and location of the university. 

Employability also plays a role and our participants said they researched employability ratings and examples of where previous graduates are now employed.  They also highlighted the importance of meeting their potential tutors to see if they are inspiring and friendly. They strongly believe that this will impact their experience of a subject and therefore their overall university experience.

Likewise the teaching process is carefully scrutinised.  Our participants are very focused on value for money, something which is reflected in their desire to research how many lectures and tuition hours they will have per week, comparing different universities’ courses. 

What this means for university brands

It is clear that universities need to adapt their brand and marketing messages to a potential student’s ‘research and purchase’ cycle. Now is the time for those universities who hover below the radar, with interesting courses or ‘you at the heart’ philosophies, to get onto young people’s long consideration lists. The more complacent may find themselves nudged out by universities promising more student-centred communications or use of channels.

It was interesting to find that a university’s actual reputation was quite low on the list of priorities.  Prospective students want to hear the ‘truth’ about a university, they don’t want the ‘polished’ version of what the university can offer each student and don’t want a cookie cutter response to their questions. They will go online and talk to peers to understand what its really like to study at a particular university.  

Which is why universities need to put their students and staff at the centre of their brand and communications activities. Allowing them to share their experiences directly with applicants means a university can anticipate and answer the questions that really matter to young people. In addition, by directly involving their students in how the brand communicates, the content is trusted by prospective students and the university is actively encouraging its students and staff to become brand ambassadors. 

The fact that location is an important and differentiating factor for a university isn’t a new learning for many universities, however what it does highlight, is a need to better integrate the local community and its culture into the brand communications. By highlighting how the city and geographical location play such an important role in what makes the university so special, it can help prospective students to fall in love with the city and the university, making it a destination to want to live and study in.  

Students are driven to find the best version of their chosen subject. Placing more importance on individual course ranking, instead of the universities, means that universities need to steer their messaging away from the ambiguity of overall league tables. Strategic focus and messages should instead be focused on where they academically excel and differentiate themselves; what makes their courses special, the teaching staff and their teaching methods. To be reliant on the overall university’s academic reputation isn’t enough when students want a return on investment from their course and level of teaching.

Key learnings 

The traditional sources of information and methods of analysis of universities are changing. Young people actively turn to digital channels and word-of-mouth for ‘real insight’ to help them distinguish between universities and their offerings. It isn’t good enough anymore to rely on a league table position or have centuries of heritage, a university needs to understand the purchase cycles of prospective students and engage directly with its students. 

For the universities that continue to create their brand and marketing strategies in isolation, they will quickly see themselves eclipsed by more student-centred universities. But regardless of its reputation, universities have to remember that they are there to inspire and transform the lives of their students, so what better way to do that than include them in the brand strategy and messages. They need to let the knowledge and teaching speak for itself and let their own consumers promote the institution.