Skip to Content

Large Image
UCAS Through the Lens of Students report 2016

How do you market HE to applicants when the graduate premium is at risk?

Last month, UCAS published its report Through the lens of students: how perceptions of higher education influence applicants’ choices, presenting the views of 16,600 18-19-year-old UK undergraduate applicants in the 2015 admissions cycle.

In the foreword, UCAS Chief Executive Mary Curnock Cook commented: “In general, [applicants] are very career-focused and the various aspects of higher education most likely to secure them the career structure they want are given a high priority in their search.” (This really echoes with my previous blog Unibox article from December – 2015: The year indebted students focus on careers).

I just wanted to highlight some of the report’s key findings that really echo with our work at Emsi in the HE sector, and offer my own conclusions about how universities could go even further than the report’s recommendations, in showing applicants the advantages of going to uni.

  • Applicants are looking for universities with a good record for graduate job prospects. Moreover, applicants are enquiring about graduate-level jobs. Universities should explain the progression pathways from courses into graduate employment, cite alumni examples together with some labour market information to show sustainability.
  • Applicants think that employers are most interested in relevant work experience. I’m really pleased to read this as it is backed up with separate research from employers published in (for example) The Independent and by High Fliers Research. Universities should explain and promote how employers are involved in shaping their courses and the opportunities available for students to gain work experience as part of their course.
  • Applicants want to better understand the full range of courses available to them. Note I have put “courses” rather than “degrees” because applicants need to be made aware of all options including HNCs, HNDs, employer-sponsored degrees, Foundation Degrees, Higher/Degree Apprenticeships and Degrees themselves! Moreover, the options need to be contextualized to the learner’s entry qualification circumstances – Access? A levels? BTEC? IB? Etc. Universities should tailor their marketing and application support to different audiences to make them more personalised experiences.
  • Applicants also want more visibility of employment opportunities as part of the degree. Again, with reference to the High Fliers Research, you can see why internships, industrial placements and other forms of work experience are of interest to prospective students. So why aren’t universities making these opportunities more visible? Universities should highlight how different courses prepare students for work – citing the opportunities available for students to gain work experience.
  • Applicants want reassurance about the graduate job market. Tools such as Emsi LEP Region Reports are a great way to showcase how regional labour market needs are addressed by universities and colleges. The recent report from the Intergenerational Foundation indicated that repayment of student debts could actually wipe out the graduate premium – the “extra” earnings a graduate would expect to make over a non-graduate – for most professions. Universities should make more use of labour market information to reassure their incoming students that the degree they are signing up to will give them a number of opportunities for employment after graduation..
  • Applicants cite variable quality of advice from schools and colleges. The report identifies different perceptions towards HE – most of which could be addressed with suitable, impartial careers information, advice and guidance within schools and colleges. For example: financial considerations; entry requirements and pathways; course and related career options; different types of universities and also recognizing different sets of circumstances and tailoring the information for them. Universities should work with schools and colleges to encourage all learners to think about post-18 choices at younger ages. Support should be balanced, learner-centred information, advice and guidance and help learners compare by institution and course.


So why should universities be interested in these findings? Well, for a start this cohort was the last to receive maintenance loans (these became grants on 1 August, adding significantly more to graduate debt for those from low income backgrounds). Were this survey to be repeated with the students starting this September, it would be really interesting to compare the responses. Second, there is more marketing out there about apprenticeships than ever before and yet so few universities have actually registered as delivery partners (just 21 according to Dan Simons from the SFA at the recent UUK Conference) so could we see a drop in university acceptances this year whilst learners wait until the levy kicks in next year? And third, I would like to reiterate one key finding: applicants want reassurance about the graduate job market. Moreover, they just want someone to map out how a university can help them develop the skills they want for the job they want in the location they want. Is that too much to ask?

In my next blog post, I’m hoping to share some great practice from FE and HE providers in Scotland who are working collaboratively to do just this!

Posted by Jamie Mackay on Tue, 14 Feb 2017

comments powered by Disqus

Jamie is Business Development Manager for Higher Education at Economic Modelling Specialists Int'l (EMSI). Jamie has a long track record in the HE sector, with particular specialisms in widening participation, marketing, recruitment and partnerships. In his current role, he works closely with universities to enable them to better understand their role in driving their regional economy through graduate employability and increased productivity.

View Profile