UK: University Challenge

Last Updated: 1 August 2013
Article by Deloitte LLP

Most Read Contributor in UK, August 2017

Traditional universities in the UK are under serious pressure at the moment. A recent paper from the Institute for Public Policy Research describes how an "avalanche" is threatening their very existence. Access for All released this month by the Strategic Society Centre provides an analysis of how the cost of applying to university negatively affects UK undergraduate student applications. There are three key challenges which universities must respond to in order recruit students, and crucially, retain them:

1. Disruption of the market from alternative providers
Government policy is to promote new forms of higher education providers, including for-profit enterprises; this increases competition, particularly in niche areas. Distance and online learning is a growing force. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have reached a tipping point and their influence will only grow in the market-place as they begin to compete with the 'normal' degree.

2. The rising commercialisation of the student experience
Undergraduate funding and tuition fee rises mean that university's undergraduate funding model is now much more akin to the postgraduate version, where universities compete heavily for the top talent. The high prices in England encourage students to look both at alternative progression paths, or further afield at the increasing number of English speaking courses around the world.

3. Consumer technology and trends
According to a recent report, 72% of consumers own a smartphone, up from 58% only 10 months ago, and 48% of those between 18-24 shop via apps. If students are connected to their friends through social media and communicate with businesses through mobile, then the traditional lecture hall, textbook, note-taking experience is clearly antiquated. Why pay thousands of pounds a year to go back in time?

The UK's high streets are littered with examples of businesses that failed to respond to recent disruptions to their eco-system. In the same way, HE providers find themselves catapulted into a similarly transformed sector, in their case this is closer to a genuine market than they have ever been before.

As a result, where commercial organisations had to adapt to changes in consumer behaviour, it is important that universities also consider their strategy in light of these changes. More so than ever before, universities need a clear idea regarding who they are targeting to recruit, and why.  Should they focus on their current market, or seek to attract new student groups whose demands they are better placed to satisfy?

With a clear strategy, universities must then harness resources, technology and people to build a student experience that encapsulates a journey taking their targeted prospective student from an initial awareness of the institution, right through to their retirement.

For example, HE providers must consider whether:

  • Marketing effectiveness is tested objectively and iterated to refine the recruitment process around their strategy.
  • CRM or SIS systems truly provide the value they should; underpinning and enabling a high quality the student journey, as well as collecting the right data to enable analysis that results in actionable insight.
  • Social and data analytics is used to assess performance at moments-of-truth throughout the student journey and to enhance understanding of prospective students through to alumni in order to serve them more effectively.
  • Alumni are genuine advocates for their university, and if not, which features of the student journey need to change to improve the experience.

Going through this process could affect buildings, technology, brand, infrastructure, course offerings, marketing, geographical locations: every facet that makes up a university should be challenged. In some cases the outcome of this approach could be radical, for others, only minor elements will change.

Given their new competitive surroundings, only if HE providers consider questions like these and make the student their primary concern will they safeguard their economic viability, allowing them to push forward world class education and provide the wider benefit to society that we expect from the sector.

Tom Eshelby
Tom sits in the Marketing & Insight team, within Deloitte's Customer practice. His work focuses on the Public Sector as well as around customer analytics. He is a member of the Higher Education team, and his most recent work involved helping a HE Institution to redesign key stages of their student journey.
Connect with Tom on LinkedIn

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