The Honest Marketer

Friday, 1 November 2013

Recruitment is the number one priority

My interview with University Business Magazine

What have been the most significant developments in the UK university sector in 2013?

The most significant development in the sector has been the focus on recruitment with a trend towards aggressive recruitment strategies designed to protect and grow fee income.

The impact of higher fees, student number controls and the deregulation of AAB student numbers for 2012 entry took some in the sector by surprise. There were 14% less UK and EU accepted applicants and against predictions of 85,000 AAB graded and above students, there were eventually 79,200. This hit the Russell Group hardest with undergraduate numbers dropping at a third of its member institutions at a forecasted cost of £80m. The loss of the income to the sector from the 54,000 less students was estimated at £1.3bn over three years.

Universities hit hardest in 2012 were determined not to be complacent in future recruitment activities. The University of Birmingham, estimated to have fallen short by about 700 undergraduate students in 2012, became the first university in the sector to offer 1,000 unconditional places based on predicted straight A grades. It now plans to extend the pilot in 2014 after attracting 300 high achievers. It is almost certain that other universities – including us – will follow suit.

At Birmingham City University, we similarly have begun to pay increasingly close attention to our ‘offer strategy’.  In one Faculty, during 2013, a system was piloted by Admissions and senior Faculty management whereby all rejected applicants were reviewed prior to a final decision being made. While labour intensive, this approach meant the Faculty subsequently had the highest conversion rates and went into Clearing with the smallest gap in numbers. For 2014 entry, this review process is being extended across all Faculties. Early decisions over the points to accept in confirmation and Clearing also meant BCU gained an additional 1,410 students (up 9% on the previous year), recruiting to the maximum 103% SNC.

Will the student experience continue to be a major focus in 2014?

Recruitment will be the number one priority, but closely followed by student experience. We have all witnessed the anticipated rise in consumerist attitudes as a result of higher fees. Complaints by students in England and Wales against universities rose by a quarter in 2012 to 2,012 – the highest since the Office of the Independent Adjudicator was set up in 2004.

There will be an increasing focus on institutional policy and practice, specifically in relation to quality assurance. No university wants to hit the headlines in the way that London Metropolitan did when its UKBA Highly Trusted Status was revoked in 2012. Derby University has become the most recent victim of adverse publicity following accusations in October of falsifying data on graduate employment rates by allegedly withholding or misreporting survey returns.

At Birmingham City University, we have launched an institution-wide strategy – Partners for Success – which builds on our sector-leading positioning for student engagement and our focus on graduate employability. Comprehensive in its approach, this strategy includes among others positive actions to improve communications with new entrants and current students, early identification of ‘at risk’ students, expansion of personal tutor support and the embedding of entrepreneurship support and work experience into all course programmes. By 2015, we want to be employing 3,000 students across the University – triple current numbers – via OpportUNIty, our ‘Jobs on Campus’ initiative launched in 2012.

Over the past three years the University’s ‘THE Outstanding Support for Students’ award-winning Student Academic Partners scheme – which partners students with academics to review aspects of the student experience – has delivered over 160 projects, employed over 400 students and dramatically improved the learning experience across the University in wide variety of areas. Following a successful pilot in 2012, we launched the Student Academic Mentoring Partnerships initiative in 2012/13, enabling students to take advantage of peer-to-peer support from more experienced students, under the guidance of academic staff.

Will competition to attract the best students remain fierce?

Universities have always competed to attract the best students using reputation and financial incentives, such as merit-based scholarships and bursaries. The cap on home undergraduate SNC numbers and deregulation of AAB, ABB and, for 2014, ABB or equivalent has, however, forced the issue further. High achieving students offer the biggest potential for growth for all universities, but for those universities for whom over 80% of their student numbers sit outside the SNC, the ‘best students’ are essential to maintaining their bread and butter fee income.

Russell Group universities in particular cannot afford to see these numbers reducing, which is primarily why the University of Birmingham adopted its unconditional offer strategy. Leeds (which lost out on 500 students in 2012), Newcastle and Sheffield offered scholarships to bright candidates in certain courses.On its website, the University of Manchester says that “more than a third of students will receive bursaries of up to £3,000 per year and many will be offered even more generous support”.

It is not just the elite universities who are getting in on the act though, financial aid up to £10,000 was offered at Aston, Bournemouth, Brunel, City University London, Coventry, De Montfort, Edge Hill, Essex, Gloucestershire, Kent, Leicester, Newcastle, Newman University College, Northumbria, Roehampton, the Royal Agricultural College, Salford, Surrey and Wolverhampton. The University of Bedfordshire offered students with ABB grades £3,000 a year and one Vice-Chancellor’s Scholarship (waiving all fees, worth £27,000) for each academic faculty.

At Birmingham City University, we offer support through the National Scholarship programme, but have shied away in recent years from what the press terms ‘cash bribes’. This strategy is being reviewed, but we are seeking to offer travel incentives for applicants for 2014 entry, as well as launching a programme of regular weekly visit opportunities. We know that if we can attract prospective students on campus, we have almost a 50% conversion rate. Travel costs and visit timings are the biggest barriers to visit day attendance.

Will 2014 present new challenges in the higher education sector? 

The biggest challenge for the sector will be to try to reverse the negative impressions overseas of a ‘closed UK’ due to the Government’s policy on immigration; the pressures on the home market mean that all universities will be seeking to maintain and most likely grow international numbers, as we are at Birmingham City University. There will be a concerted effort by universities to expand international partnerships to strengthen feeder pipelines, rather than the traditional recruitment fair/agent-led approach.

At an institutional level, the focus will be re-thinking the desired size and shape of universities. Almost all corporate strategies five to 10 years ago were optimistically seeking extensive growth in student numbers, but the reality has been very different. The portfolio of programmes will rationalise or expand, depending on individual circumstances, including competitive strength and demand. Informed decision-making through professional market intelligence will be critical. We should expect to see more rigorous new product development testing. Universities will make use of the large ‘pool’ of test subjects offered not only through universities own student population and enquiry databases, but also from the many commercial platforms, such as Youthsight or the Student Room.

The time for complacency in marketing is well and truly over. All universities need to wise up to the competitive environment in which we operate and commit the level of resource – both human and financial – required to succeed. To my mind, the biggest cultural shift needs to take place in the office of the Director of Finance. Traditional UK university marketing budgets estimated to be between 0.75-1.5% of their revenue simply won’t cut it when you consider that some for-profit US Colleges spend 20% and more. We need to shift from viewing Marketing as a ‘cost’ to recognising it as an ‘investment’, which is directly linked to and brings an enormous return.

Taking Birmingham City University as an example, academic fees and education contracts accounted for £93m of BCU’s £162m income in 2011/12 and the home full-time undergraduate market represents 63% of all students. In 2012/13, we spent around £800K on our positioning campaigns to drive traffic to Open Days and Clearing. The 2013 Clearing campaign – which included television, outdoor, online, press and radio advertising – cost in the region of £400K, but this generated 1,410 additional students. At an average fee of £7,500 that equates to £10.5m fee income in the first year and £32m over three years of a degree student; not a bad return on investment.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Clearing 2013: Are universities facing another bloodbath?

With A level results day fast approaching, universities across the UK are gearing up for the chaotic scramble to fill university places at this time of year. Last year, over 300 institutions and more than 55,700 students obtained their places in Clearing – 4,600 more than in 2011 – the highest recorded to date. Academics and administrators alike are busily clearing the way for Clearing – our only guarantee that we are not quite sure what to expect.

This year represents my 16th anniversary of involvement with Clearing (17th if you count the by association experience when my best friend went to university through Clearing back in 1988). It is undoubtedly my busiest thanks to the ever-changing landscape of HE being created as a result of higher fees and the Government’s core and margin policy to restrict and manage the number of students being recruited.

At Birmingham City University, the preparation for ‘Clearing’ started around three months ago, not least because the process of accepting or confirming students on places for undergraduate courses begins in earnest some months earlier than August.

There is a long-standing public misconception that Clearing is solely for A level students and as such begins on A level results day. The official UCAS process itself begins at the start of July and runs until September. It is true that the majority of those entering university hold A levels, however the proportion of the population entering holding A levels actually fell in 2012, while that of UK 18 year olds entering with BTECs increased and has risen by 80% since 2008. Research published in 2011 showed that more than half of 20 to 30-year-olds going on to higher education are BTEC students. Similarly, numbers studying the International Baccalaureate have been steadily rising. Results for the multitude of qualifications now accepted within entry requirements come out from as early as May onwards, enabling their recipients to confirm their places (as a number who attended our recent Open Day in June chose to do).

Clearing last year was described as a ‘bloodbath’. It was definitely a watershed moment: universities fell short of recruitment targets by almost 30,000 representing millions of pounds in lost fee income and a number of Russell Group universities were forced to enter Clearing for the first time, hit hardest by the reduction of AAB students (at this is point I stifle a wry smile, having worked in three post-92 universities that have always relied on Clearing). This created a ripple effect throughout the pecking order, though at BCU we managed to recruit one more student than in 2011.

There can be no doubt that lessons were learned; all universities have treated their recruitment for 2013 with a little caution and a lot more attention. At BCU, we are working harder than ever to ensure prospective students (and parents) recognise the benefits of what we have to offer as a university focused on creative and professional education and research. Our popularity continues with UCAS applications bucking national trends – up 13 compared to 3 per cent. Whether those applications will convert to students sufficient to meet our targets remains to be seen.

Members of staff in Education Liaison, Admissions and the Academic Faculties have already been liaising with our feeder schools and colleges to help secure places for those wanting to come to university this September. Meanwhile, large numbers of staff have been contributing to the preparation for the huge logistical operation that kicks in when universities receive A level results the weekend before results day. Like their counterparts up and down the country, our admissions staff will be working over this weekend in readiness for the communication to confirm places to students who have met their offers and do not need to enter the Clearing process. For those who have not secured or are seeking to change places, we open our Clearing hotline at 8am on August 15 and will have staff on site at five local colleges in Birmingham. We will also be running a dedicated Open Day on Saturday August 17 from 10am-2pm targeted specifically at students seeking to gain entry this September.

Last year, the University received almost 4,000 calls to the hotline and our course enquiries line on Results Day, while our central switchboard took 2,600 calls. This year we have taken the unprecedented step of recruiting and training over 40 staff from across the University to support marketing staff who have traditionally manned the lines.
Rumours abound that the “elite universities” are gearing up for Clearing too. Some have already taken the unusual (some might say risky) step of making unconditional offers based on predicted grades, while others are reportedly dropping their entry requirements substantially to ensure they recover student numbers. This effectively means that the ripple effect we saw during Clearing in 2012 may actually have already started – without many universities realising. Which students will be available in Clearing and with what grades is something of a mystery and some hotlines could turn out to be surprisingly quiet.

Monday, 10 June 2013

Media champions: Dumbing down or a savvy approach to modern research dissemination?

Growing up in a household with an academic now long since retired, whose aspirations were to achieve critical acclaim (and ideally more research funding) through peers, professional bodies and journals, brings into stark contrast the world in which I, his daughter, now operate. While these traditional ‘prestigious’ channels are still valid, it is apparent to me that blogging, tweeting, radio and the tabloid press have an equal – if not more important – role to play when it comes to highlighting the impact of academic research and investigation.

Nowhere was this more evident than when Birmingham City University celebrated its unique Media Champions training programme at the beginning of June. Channel 5’s Killers Behind Bars presenter Professor David Wilson, arguably the UK’s leading criminologist, joined Child Protection Expert and ITV journalist Mark Williams-Thomas, best known for exposing Jimmy Savile, to share an insight into the world of academic publishing as they know it. The session, hosted by the BBC’s Political Editor for the Midlands Patrick Burns, also featured up and coming academic Sophie Rowe. As a recently trained BCU Media Champion, Sohpie is about to embark on her PhD and will be combining both academic and media engagement tools from the start of her academic career.

Media Champions, recently short-listed in the 2013 Times Higher Education Leadership and Management Awards, is a unique partnership between the University’s Press Office, School of Media and Faculty academics. We use the experience, skills and knowledge of our Skillset-accredited School of Media to develop and deliver bespoke media training for our rising academic stars to equip them with the tools to promote their work more effectively through popular communication channels. Faculties nominate and pay for their staff development.

Past experience has taught me that the mere mention of a press release about academic research – in plain English – was enough to send shivers down the spine of many established academics, who felt that this form of ‘dumbing down’ was wholly inappropriate. Encouraging them to tweet, write blogs, record video diaries and speak to the likes of The Sun and Daily Mail would have appeared preposterous. Not so now.

As Sophie put it, if academics have something insightful and brilliant to say about current issues, it would seem a waste of both their talent and the opportunity to share such relevant research with a wider audience than simply those who read academic journals. An article in a national newspaper can reach thousands of individuals – more if it is picked up on twitter, as was the case with an article on US drone strikes in Pakistan by senior lecturer and terrorism expert Imran Awan.
Bringing academic research to a mass audience should not be seen as dumbing down, but as a means of ensuring that ordinary individuals – the people who vote in the politicians and have the strength in numbers to protest and force change – can learn more about issues (sometimes deliberately hidden) that affect their everyday lives.

For me, this is where the real impact of scholarly investigation lies. As traumatic and horrific as it has been, just look at the consequences and subsequent fall out of Mark’s investigation into Jimmy Savile. If the mass media had not picked up on the story in the way that it has, I wonder whether we would still be seeing the daily trickle of new charges and accusations or whether the victims would have continued to stay silent. As a result of the widespread publicity, which put considerable pressure on the BBC as well as the authorities, a line in the sand has now been drawn. Celebrities are as accountable as the rest of us; no matter what actor Jeremy Irons may think, there are no grades of abuse – abuse is abuse.

At BCU we have chosen to champion and support those academics who are willing to put themselves in a media spotlight. Unfortunately, as David has found, the public are as likely to comment on your appearance as they are your research. While Mark knows only too well that putting yourself out there will inevitably draw criticism, academics therefore need to steel themselves and not be deterred. For David, Mark, Sophie and all our media champions, the publicity that comes with the Media Champions programme is not an ego trip; it is not about achieving celebrity status, but is about finding ways of using academic context in a popular way.

If media and publicity can affect real change, as it has done in the case of the Savile investigation, then courting the journalists and acknowledging the reach of social media is surely a wise move. We may have to dumb down some of the terminology, but there’s nothing dumb in getting support and understanding from the masses – is there?

Friday, 22 February 2013

A competitive offa: How and who should track the effectiveness of outreach activities?

There is a growing debate within the Higher Education sector about the effectiveness of outreach activities in widening participation and whether this should be monitored at a national level. Just last week the 1994 Group called for the Government to start tracking university interventions through the National Pupil Database.

It’s a question we have been asking at Birmingham City University since last term when, for the first time, we had comprehensive data on full ‘lifecyle’ conversion from enquiry to enrolment. Having installed a professional enquiry management system in 2011, like many other universities we are now able to track the effectiveness of the full range of our recruitment activities – from telephone and email contact to master classes, taster days, UCAS fairs and Open Days.

BCU’s decision to hold an additional open day on Saturday February 23 appears to have paid off. So far, we have had over 1,500 prospective students register to attend, two-thirds of whom are intending to study this September. Many will just turn up on the day of course.

In terms of reach, Open Days are by far the biggest of our outreach activities – almost 6,000 prospective students visited us via that route in 2011/12. We also know that since the announcement of higher fees back in 2011, there has been a phenomenal increase in Open Day attendance. In the four-year period up to 2010, YouthSight research showed that over half all students attended no open days before handing in their UCAS form and a fifth would attend one open day. Yet by October 2011, the Guardian was already reporting a significant shift in behaviour with some universities reporting Open Day attendance up by 75% and many students visiting all five of their UCAS choices (

Open Days are critical when it comes to educating prospective students about the benefits of Higher Education, albeit at a particular institution, and converting interest to application. The YouthSight 2012/13 Fact File found that a good first impression from universities’ open days was a major factor influencing university choice for over half of applicants. BCU’s research shows that 42% of those who attend an Open Day will go on to apply and around a quarter will eventually study with us.

As well as Open Day conversion rates, we know that roughly 20% of students who attended subject master classes in previous years went on to enrol at BCU and I can tell you the Faculty of Technology, Engineering and the Environment enjoys a 57% conversion rate from its Applicant Visit Days – the highest of our six Faculties. It sounds fairly impressive, but is it? What I don’t know is whether this level of conversion is competitive or even effective when compared to other similar universities.

There is very little shared information when it comes to benchmarking the success of not just Open Days, but the full range of outreach activities. Universities like BCU have been committed to widening participation since the outset and all institutions charging higher fees now have to outline their commitment to access to the Office for Fair Access (OFFA). To me, OFFA would seem to be a logical choice to take more of an active role in tracking success and publishing benchmarks, which will hopefully be the outcome of the shared strategy for widening access to HE currently under review. But their remit will be limited, likely only to cover the activities included within institutional Access Agreements. For a broader assessment of the full range of recruitment activities, maybe a professional body like CASE or the mission groups themselves need to step in on behalf of the marketing professionals. 

Given the huge investment that is being ploughed into outreach activities at an institutional level, coupled with the desire at a national level to increase participation rates in Higher Education, there is surely a need to monitor such activities more effectively. To me, it doesn’t matter who takes on the challenge…as long as someone does. It’s in everyone’s interest to make sure we are getting it right.


Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Bursaries and scholarships - an incentive or not?

At Birmingham City University, we are mid-way through our regular student number planning sessions to review recruitment targets for the coming cycle and to forecast the pattern in 2014/15 and beyond. In terms of the undergraduate market, as you would expect, we are considering the impact of fees, the emerging trends at subject level and the expansion to ABB of the Government’s core and margin policy. The question that is repeatedly coming up, however, is whether financial incentives have made any difference to our current offer or have the potential to do so.
It’s an interesting debate – and I don’t for one minute pretend to have the answers. It’s also one that requires a little clarity.

As a firm believer in the virtues of and rights to access Higher Education, I – like many – am of the view that there should always be financial support that is essentially needs-based and intended to ensure those who require additional financial support are not deterred from University on this basis alone. The National Scholarship Programme has a merit of its own that should not necessarily be linked to recruitment targets or bottom line.

The financial support I am questioning is that which is primarily recruitment driven – to win over particular cohorts to select a specific institution or discipline over and above other HEIs.

It’s a perfectly valid marketing tactic and one that pervades everyday life (‘BOGOF’ still amuses me). Back in November, the Telegraph reported a range of universities offering up to £10,000 to secure ABBs, including some on my patch (

A review of BCU’s financial support for 2012/13 against that of competitors found ours to be fairly modest. We did not go down the route of offering large chunks of cash to secure higher performing students or win back numbers in Clearing. That said, we did not lose out on our AAB students (though numbers are fairly small) and our recruitment performance, as per the UCAS figures released earlier this month, was very good by comparison with many others. Our accepted applicant figures – according to UCAS – were up 1.8% on 2011/12 (the reality is that our enrolments after people withdrew or did not turn up were slightly down, but not by much).

Marketing logic tells me that we should be offering financial support packages that are at least on a par with our competitors. Yet I have to wonder that since we did not do this and, as it transpires, did not need to in 2012, would it really make commercial sense to increase the money we give out in future, if it’s potentially to students that would come to us anyway?

A survey of our own enquirers for 12/13 revealed that 60% said bursaries and scholarships were quite or very important, but 69% said they would not affect the students’ decision to apply. Market research released by dh insight this month based on a small sample of Year 13 students predicted As and Bs found little awareness of financial incentives and that it was essentially considered “a nice add on” rather than being a critical part of the decision-making process. Similarly, the Institute of Fiscal Studies reported last November that the uncertainty of the whole process which means that students often do not know what bursaries and scholarships they would be eventually awarded prior to making their application (and often after enrolment) meant that it made little or no difference to their decision.

The issue I have is that much of this research that exists is based purely on student opinions. Unfortunately, we know that what people say and what they do aren’t always the same. Not many students said they would pay fees of up to £9,000, but over 400,000 did and many more intend to do so; UCAS applications for 2013 are up about 3% to date.

I would like to see some robust market research that analyses the support offered at particular HEIs against their actual recruitment, particularly those that did very well in securing AABs and the additional student numbers they were awarded.

So, the question remains…should universities be seeking to provide a competitive market offer when it comes to financial incentives or should they trust that the broader academic offer will be sufficient to recruit the numbers they desire? What's your view?