Can't wait to see you again


By Aimee Kleinman & Tim Landucci

What’s it like applying to university in lockdown? We asked 26,000 applicants to find out how it went and when they’d like to visit campus again.

In order to find some answers to this big question, SMRS and the CASE Universities Marketing Forum (UMF) developed a sector-wide, syndicated research project to dig deeper into the 2021 prospective student experience. We wanted to learn how this disjointed, complex, and uncertainty-riddled journey to university has impacted future students, so we asked applicants to 38 UK universities how things have gone and what they want now?

The global pandemic has presented the sector with some of the most significant challenges it has ever faced – moving all learning online, managing changeable guidance from Government, and dealing with substantial administrative challenges, all while maintaining an acceptable level of service.

While the sector has admirably risen to these challenges, what impact have they had on students planning on going to university this year? The great majority will not have had the opportunity to visit campuses, go to an open day, meet with academics, current students, or graduates. How will missing out on these keystone physical interactions affect their confidence about making informed decisions?

We wanted to understand how students approached and found the process of applying to university without visiting campuses in person, how this may have impacted decision-making and what their perceptions and expectations are for starting university in Autumn 2021. We hoped to learn from the last year, to improve the next, and help ensure the best possible student experience is delivered now and in the future.

This extensive research project included Higher Education providers representing all UK countries and all mission groups. We had more than 26,000 prospective students responding to our survey, providing an excellent overall barometer of experience across the sector.

The research has provided the participating universities with some very detailed insights into the 2021 applicant experience and here are some headline findings that will support universities as they make plans for the coming months and years.

Returning to face-to-face events

The findings from the research are conclusive. Students are looking forward to the return of campus-based events and visiting in person as soon as government regulations permit.

Virtual events and experiences

While campus visits have not been possible, virtual events have become a critical part of providing a prospective student with some open day experience. Feedback was not positive. Respondents strongly prefer campus-based events and expect a blended approach at some points in the cycle.

Perhaps unsurprisingly the feedback from our research has identified that the digital-only student experience was underwhelming. However, we collected lots of useful insights from students on how they would like to see the sector improve their online offering. To achieve this, virtual event platforms, content, and crucially interactivity need significant improvement.

A critical part of this is interactivity is the opportunity to engage with tutors, peers, alumni and different types of content as it’s challenging to bring the student experience to life in a virtual world.


It has been incredibly challenging to provide timely, accurate and personable communications over the last year. But students expect reassurance and support, along with the opportunity to engage in a variety of ways. Email is one part, but providing other engagement opportunities like consultations, live Q&As, and webinars alongside traditional communications will help to alleviate student concerns.

This sector-wide research wouldn’t have been possible without the support of the UMF. It has helped us understand critical student experiences over the last year and their role in decision-making, and how students feel about returning to campus and starting university. We’ve also uncovered vital areas of focus to improve the journey for next years’ students as the road to higher education continues to be on diversion.

Our thanks go to all the participating universities: University of Manchester, Harper Adams University, University of Nottingham, University of Hull, Goldsmiths, University of London, University of Plymouth, University of Southampton, University of Dundee, Ulster University, City, University of London, University of Derby, Teesside University, Manchester Metropolitan University, University of Sunderland, Birmingham City University, University of Central Lancashire, University of Glasgow, Oxford Brookes University, University of Stirling, London Metropolitan University, University of Liverpool, Cardiff Metropolitan University, University of Hertfordshire, University of Suffolk, University of Surrey, Leeds Beckett University, Solent University, Southampton, UCL, University of Bedfordshire, University of Leicester, Royal Holloway, University of London, UWE Bristol, University of the Arts London, Staffordshire University, Newcastle University, University of Gloucestershire, University of Bristol and University of Exeter.