The Student Recruitment Challenge

March 5, 2021

Tuition fees represent more than halfof UK university income, and unprecedented levels of uncertainty caused by the Covid-19 pandemic have exacerbated the scale of the student recruitment challenge. University cost increases have outstripped revenue growth, and financial sustainability has become the biggest threat faced by the sector. 

Student recruitment is vital for sector survival – technology could be the answer

Government has ambitions for the number of UK-hosted international students to increase to 600,000 per year by 2030, something universities might need to achieve against the backdrop of a post-pandemic global recession. 

Now more than ever, university senior leaders require new and innovative solutions that address student recruitment. Jisc and Emerge Education have brought together heads of student recruitment and chief marketing officers from across the UK, to address these challenges in a new report: The future of student recruitment. 

The report shares advice and a roadmap to help senior leaders to revolutionise student recruitment by 2030. Recommendations suggest that universities use machine learning, AI, and other technology to provide students with a truly personalised experience, matching them to courses suited to their skills and interests.  

The report also addresses demographic shifts, changes to admission systems, Brexit, and international recruitment challenges. 

There are positives to be found. The recent rapid transition to online learning, coupled with technological advancements has given student recruitment a real boost: “I think I’ve probably seen more innovation in student recruitment in the last eight months than the previous 10 years that I was in the sector.” writes Elliot Newstead, head of UK student recruitment and outreach, University of Leicester 

Findings also show that the transition to online has proven positive for student recruitment services – with newfound flexibility suiting many students. 

Ross Porter, head of international compliance and advice, University of Greenwich, notes: “The feedback we’re hearing from students is they like being able to get hold of us online. They like not having to traipse onto campus to come and meet with somebody, but they do want that option available as well. I think there will be a blended offer moving forward, but I don’t think we’re ever going to go back to how it was.”   

Plotting the path towards successful student recruitment in 2030, the report outlines that student recruitment will need to fulfil three key requirements, using technology to do so. It will need to be; automated and personalised, flexible and accessible, and a unified journey with continuous engagement. 

The report states that the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), coupled with universities’ analytics, could map individuals’ journeys, identifying needs and interacting personally with them at key milestones and decision points in the journey. Using such technology would provide students with meaningful and personal engagement, giving them a clear sense of their options. 

Katie Bell, Chief Marketing Officer at UCAS remarks: “We need to be looking at how we communicate information to the students who are going to be applying to university. As a sector, we do that in a clunky way right now. Why can’t we just do something like comparethemarket.com? Something that would quickly scan academic profiles and say, look, these suggestions are based on other people like you who preferred universities like this.”   

Sue Attewell, head of edtech at Jisc says: “Universities have shown they can transition to online delivery at an impressive speed, improving digital skills and moving to online services in merely months. This report provides both inspiration and practical steps to help guide   senior leaders towards a modernised version of student recruitment by 2030.”  

Nic Newman, Emerge Education partner says: “The ideas and best practice examples in this report stand to fuel and support real change for the sector, as it faces up to perhaps its biggest challenge yet. Student recruitment teams have already proven they can offer flexible options at a rapid pace, and students are happy with the results. By following the recommendations in this report, and adapting to technology supported recruitment offerings, the higher education sector stands to flourish.”