Note: This blog was originally published in January 2019.

“You can’t win by comparing yourself to where you were last year. You’ve got to remember that the other guy is learning too, so you actually have to go faster than the leader to catch up.”

– Ralph Gomory

It seems crazy, but here we are, at the end of January. It’s one of those months which brings unique challenges.

Not only are we all suffering from the seasonal blues and the credit card bill ready to take its vengeance, the month also presents the moment of truth for those working in education.

Application deadlines (well, this is a debate in itself) have passed, and the realisation of the current cycle comes into fruition.

This is where we take a deep breath, evaluate the numbers and plan for the next phase in the cycle.

We are either putting our foot down on the gas, or, congratulating ourselves on a job well done.

For most, it’s the frantic rush to keep building the numbers and maintain momentum for student applications.

Although the trend started in 2017, this cycle has generated national interest due to the unprecedented number of unconditional offers.

What was once given to those students of a certain calibre, is now a default response to market challenges.

As a consequence, the Office for Students (OfS) has warned they will be clamping down on unconditional offers. If seen to be inappropriate.

Changes to funding and a highly competitive market have resulted in universities needing to take drastic action.

UK Universities are world-renowned for their teaching, research and student inclusivity.

These fundamental principles must be protected.

Yet, unconditional offers are not the answer. The OfS is actively researching the ‘steep rise’:

Missed opportunity

I can’t help thinking that the focus of student recruitment, in its current state, is seriously misguided.

The pressures have pushed institutions to pursue short-term solutions to a much wider issue – the value of higher education.

The focus should be on creating incredible programmes with industry links and transferable employability skills for students.

It’s critical the student experience, from their first enquiry to graduation and beyond, is inspiring, memorable and satisfying.

It’s about the package and experiences we can offer which sets us apart.

Education is experiencing a demographic downturn. Increasing advertising budgets won’t rectify this.

Moreover, if there is no interest in your offer, you’re not going to see the results.

Rather than chase short-term solutions, this is the time to reevaluate our portfolios.

Technology and business are rapidly changing. New skills are required, and more businesses are investing in other ways of attracting and training talent. In all areas. It’s not just about STEM. Arts and Humanities are just as critical.

Creativity drives innovation.

However, private providers and companies, are creating their own home-grown talent. Through schemes such as degree apprenticeships.

We need to recognise all the trends in the market. And Adapt. Our competitors are not just other Universities.

It doesn’t matter how good your marketing is, if the product isn’t right, people won’t buy.

Developing the portfolio

Whether we agree with it or not, our courses are our products. That’s why students apply. People are buying our expertise and resources for them to succeed.

We need to be aware of what is happening in the sectors we are training people to be part of.

The hard skills required for an entry-level role now in marketing has drastically changed to what it was 7-8 years ago. I should know. When I first graduated, I struggled to find a role.

Applying for unpaid internships was also difficult as the skills required were digitally focussed.

As a graduate, if you have worked hard, it is extremely demoralising to be informed your degree is irrelevant. You don’t have the talent required.

As an educational institution, it is our responsibility to ensure we are preparing students in the right way.

We are shaping their future.

We have so many tools at our disposal to support academics to develop their programmes and/or modules.

These updates could provide the defining skills required for graduates to start their career.

We need to take a market-led approach to portfolio development. Collaborating with external businesses and industry experts.

The importance of student recruitment cannot be understated.

We need to ensure we attract the right talent and protect our reputations. Student success is our success.

As one of my colleagues commented, unconditional offers create another issue for institutions to consider:

“The financial sustainability of the HE sector is paramount but so is the ethical dilemma around securing appropriately qualified applicants. Offer to make should continue to be based on an applicant’s ability to cope with the demands of the degree programme and not just about achieving recruitment targets.”

If a student struggles, it ruins their experience. It ruins their perceptions of what opportunities they had.

Ultimately, not only does this have an impact on the individual, but also the long-term attainment for the institution.

Creating a challenge for future student recruitment cycles.

Share your thoughts

What do you think about the current state of student recruitment? Do you agree with unconditional offers being used as a recruitment tool?

Let me know in the comments below or tweet me @CJPanteny.

See you next time.

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