2017 UK higher education sector – response to UCAS applications data

2017 UK university applications down – £225m of lost revenue for the higher education sector.

Last week, UCAS data for 2017 applications highlighted that the number of people applying to study on full-time undergraduate courses at UK universities has fallen by 4 per cent year-on-year.

Overall, the number of people who applied to university courses by the June deadline was 649,700, down about 25,000 on last year. This equates to a £225m negative impact on revenue for sector.

These figures won’t be such a shock to the sector as early indications were published by UCAS in February. However, the latest figures should serve as an additional wake up call to the sector leaders.

There have been reductions in applicants from all countries of the UK with England and Wales down 5% on 2016. Additionally, applications from the EU were down 5%, whilst Non-EU applications were up 2%.

In the history of the UK’s universities, there has rarely been a time when so much change is being thrust upon them. And these latest applications figures will need to be further analysed to the causes of the decline – so there’s much for university leaders to grapple with. Here are our three considerations taking in to account these very recent application figures.

1. Tactical immediate response

Just under a tenth of all university acceptances in 2016 were through Clearing.

Although plans will be in train, this should be a time to increase focus and investment in 2017 Clearing opportunities. Universities have become more sophisticated in their marketing strategies and tactics over the recent years, but this needs to be more than just increasing campaign spend to attract clearing students – as importantly, there needs to be the right “experience” when the clearing prospect engages with the university. A survey by NetNatives last year showed that clearing call handlers were less able to answer student queries about availability of accommodation, course content, availability of places on each course, career options and the fit of the institution and course for the student than queries about entry requirements.

2. Strategic university response

We accept there are a number of market challenges facing universities. We recently interviewed a range of university leaders (mostly the vice-chancellors themselves) and reviewed examples of several university strategy documents. Our report can be found here: University Strategy Report 2017.

One conclusion we came to which was illustrated by a VC comment was that “universities are universities” and that therefore trying to differentiate is pretty much a worthless task. The implication being that all universities set out to inspire futures, tackle global challenges, and ‘create’ through knowledge, discovery and innovation.

In a world where ‘choice’ is the new mantra, there needs to be far greater attention on addressing this underlying distinctiveness for each university. The “competitive mindset” is something that needs to be developed further in some universities. This won’t be the silver bullet to address falling applications, but it will be part of a university’s clear, differentiated proposition (alongside all the league tables and TEF results) that will allow for informed choice.

3. Wider strategic response

The two key issues that jump out from the applications data that need to be addressed at a sector level are the fall in EU students and the 19% reduction number of applicants to nursing courses (with a 23% reduction in applications from England). These are two topical, high profile issues which now need the sector to renew its vigour to campaign on.

The fall in EU students is being directly linked to Brexit. The attractiveness of the UK as a study destination and for future employment has diminished for potential EU students. This sector will need to step up to build its collective brand in the EU, and invest in marketing. The #WeAreInternational initiative should be built upon with further investment, and with a renewed focus on the EU countries. There are specific EU countries to target from an opportunity perspective.

At an individual university level, the international strategy is also about strategic decision making. Two questions of “Where to play? How to win?” will need to be answered for a resource hungry opportunity. Only this week, the national UK press had reported that Kings College London is planning to become the first British university to open a campus in Europe in the wake of the Brexit vote. International university campuses, strategic partnerships, distance learning and “do nothing” should all be considered as part of each university’s international strategy.

The dramatic fall in applications for nursing courses should highlight an impeding crisis. Under recent changes, nursing students in England are now charged tuition fees, with NHS bursaries replaced with loans.  The low pay in the profession means most students will never earn enough to repay the large loans, thus making university seem out of reach for too many potential nurses. Most applicants for nursing courses are over 19, and English applicants from this age range fell this year according to the UCAS statistics.

University leaders will no doubt be campaigning on the back of this application data. The Government needs to review its policy and come back with a sustainable workforce strategy which really addresses the critical shortage of health workers in our NHS.

So in the history of the UK’s universities, there has rarely been a time when so much change is being thrust upon them. Our university leaders must think and respond tactically, strategically, and politically for the benefit of our students and our economy.

Whitecap Director Lal Tawney,  responsible for Midlands & South, is a strategy specialist and change expert with vast experience across the education sector. He has worked with The Open University, London South Bank University and The British Council with recent projects in international strategy development, customer journey design, operating model design, and organisational digital enablement.

If you would like to know more our work in this sector feel free to contact Lal directly or contact us.

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