Tackling student recruitment — Brand Ethos
15 May 2017

Tackling student recruitment

Take a cognitive approach to insight
Student recruitment is getting tougher. It’s time to understand not just what students say they want, but also what makes them anxious, says Peter Mills

Appealing to students

I paused to wonder why universities advertise on the Tube as I gazed up at an ad showing earnest young students telling us why they love their university.

The rationale is obvious. Universities are appealing to what they have heard students say they want. Students say they are looking for courses on subjects that let them express themselves and institutions that give them great support.

Other universities remind us that higher education can give young people, and mature students, a leg up in their career or take it in a whole new direction. While others tell us their campuses bring out the best in their students or are on their doorstep.

It’s all about wants and needs, hopes and ambitions.

It’s familiar territory for us here at Brand Ethos. We’ve used insights from current students, prospective students, and their parents, to derive a messaging strategy that will appeal to school leavers and give a university’s recruitment marketing an edge over its competition.

It’s complex, but it works: we have a Design Business Association design effectiveness award to prove it.

But is it time to be looking beyond needs and ambitions and start to understand prospective students’ problems and fears.

Options can be confusing

With universities requiring significant intakes of all school leavers each year against a backdrop of decreasing applications from EU students the early conversion of school leavers to universities over other options is a formidable pressure. No wonder there are ads on the Tube.

But is it too much too late? Marketing to young people to encourage them to go to university should start early and we know from what we hear about careers services in schools that we can’t rely schools to do the job for us.

The government’s strategy to get more young people into apprenticeships, boosted by funding from an employers’ levy while reducing funding support for universities is giving young people (and the Bank of Mum and Dad) a set of confusing messages. Understanding prospective students’ problems and fears will help overcome this confusion.

My careers advice was with my mum over the kitchen table. Academically I was top of my school and a job with degree-equivalent training was appealing and made sense. And I didn’t even have fees to pay. Instead, I got paid. So that’s what I did, much to the upset of my teachers: ‘This country needs scientists like your son,’ a disgruntled chemistry teacher told my mum during a parents’ evening.

Not going to university in those days was an option. School-leaver schemes were common, as were apprenticeships. Of course, there was no intern market then. Internships are now seen as being vital by some employers as evidence of people’s work experience, but some say this excludes young people from poorer backgrounds and further ‘squeezes the middle’.

Insight through a different lens

Research suggests that a university education that leads to a high-quality degree can earn you £500,000 more over your lifespan than a contemporary that didn’t choose this route. There is a strong argument that a degree works out as pretty good value for money, assuming you have the means to get work experience and the all-important internships.

If we are going to encourage social mobility encouraging young people to go to university, and give them the benefits that a university can provide, then we need to give them compelling reasons. Universities will struggle to do that with ads on the Tube.

And that takes us back to insight. The problem with insight is that it generally addresses wants and needs and not people’s fears and anxieties. When asked, students tell us their wants and needs, but their fears and anxieties just as strongly influence how they act.  Messaging is powerful if it acknowledges these concerns.

Over the coming weeks we are going to publish a series on our research with universities which sets out the value of branding for universities. While reputation remains king our conclusions make interesting reading.
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