The Honest Marketer

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.


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