The Honest Marketer

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?

1 comment:

  1. My instincts are that the 'nice to have' assessment of financial incentives is correct. Prospective students will ultimately make their choices based on longer term issues of place, student experience, teaching quality and employability, mixed with a healthy dose of institutional reputation and peer, parent and teacher influence. That said, when it comes to marketing the opportunities and support available to students, universities across the board will also have to keep up with the Joneses.