Clearing 2019 - the process, the media and the bigger picture
By Dan Beynon
I started 2019 by sharing my thoughts on the crucial role that marketing professionals at our world-leading Universities must play in shaping (and in some cases safeguarding) the future of their institutions and the importance of putting detailed audience understanding at the very centre of all that we do when telling the hugely positive story of UK Higher Education.
Many of my hopes for the year are being borne out in reality by great work being done right across the sector but as we arrive in exam results season (with Scotland’s last week and the rest of the UK this week) the annual, and now seemingly inevitable, torrent of negative media coverage will appear. This year the coverage has started with a focus on the value of certain courses and painting a picture of desperate Universities. The news agenda appears to be short term and based on somewhat flimsy evidence. Later in the week expect more editorial aimed at undermining both the achievements of our school and college students, and our Universities.
There have been some changes to the way the Clearing application process will work this year as students can now release themselves from their first-choice institution into Clearing and do not have to wait to be released. UCAS are also predicting more people in Clearing than ever before. The change will have some impact and is a positive for the applicants but we mustn’t forget that those students waiting for their results have invested sometimes more than a year of time and great effort making a decision to attend a particular institution and/or course and will be understandably committed to that choice so (as with the Adjustment process) the impact of this change may not be huge.
So as the week goes on prepare yourselves for this year’s onslaught but don’t lose sight of the sector’s very real challenges. One of those is making sure that the right students enrol at the right institution for them. The HE marketing teams that I know (through our work at SMRS and my involvement with the Universities Marketing Forum) share a determination to rid the sector, and in due course the media, of the awful term ‘bums on seats’ in relation to Higher Education enrolments. However when more articles appear this month proclaiming the ‘scramble for places/students’ and the money being allegedly wasted on marketing and filling places at any cost it is important for everyone to understand that UK Universities are huge organisations busy transforming the lives of millions of people, employing thousands of others and leading the world. With possibly a very rare exception they are not delivering reckless and wasteful marketing campaigns but are spending lots of time really understanding both their audiences and their markets to find the right students for the experience they provide and in turn make the most of their valuable, and in relative terms, limited budgets. Even the articles designed to criticise the sector about the way it markets HE actually highlight some effective, results based performance achieved with low budgets and then fail to criticise or draw a meaningful conclusion.
If you talk to University marketing professionals most now have a very clear view of their institutional marketing return on investment and a total determination to avoid any waste at all. But it is when making this point we also need to acknowledge, as a sector, that some of the current offer-making strategies being adopted at UK Universities do not help us ensure the right student attends the right institution for them. The ‘conditional unconditional’ is not helping match the right students to the right course. Let’s address that issue together.
It’s also important to consider the impact of what seems to be a very significant difference between some formally published institutional UCAS tariff requirements and the actual grades that students require to gain a place at that institution on Results Day. This differential may be driven by institutional ambitions regarding reputation but surely this is also limiting the aspirations of many students when they are trying to make informed and realistic choices about where they could secure a place to study much earlier in the academic year. Great universities help their individual students achieve beyond their own personal expectations so surely when that happens that is the real success story?
The market conditions we now see in Higher Education were created through the combined effect of government policy and the need to fund a growing system without a negative impact on other HM Treasury commitments. So, is it perhaps a little unfair to criticise institutions for reacting to a competitive market by delivering marketing campaigns? Wasting money is always wrong but if you look in any detail at what is happening then that is not the overarching case in the marketing of UK Higher Education. When the trumpet sounds this week for the headline grabbing critique of universities (and their marketing specifically) let’s remember what the very real challenges the sector faces are and not be distracted by this annual sideshow.