by GK Strategy 23rd August, 2017

A shift in the balance of power? Welcome to the ‘buyer’s market’ of higher education.

2017 looks like being a seminal year for Higher Education in the UK.

There has been a real shift away from universities holding the keys to students’ futures. Instead students’ decisions about their future are directly impacting the recruitment and retention strategy of institutions.

In fairness, the considerable number of factors responsible for this shift have been bubbling away for a number of years and there is now an over-supply in the system. The new, tougher A-Level formats, removal of the cap on student numbers and a changing demographic of fewer 18 year olds means that there are now many more courses than there are students.

The year since the Brexit vote has also caused widespread uncertainty amongst not just EU students thinking about studying here, but also international students, put off by the rhetoric around stricter visa requirements, which has in turn led to a fall in lucrative applications.

With domestic and imported demand suppressed, it’s hardly surprising the supply side is having to respond.

Nothing has signified the challenge universities are having in recruiting students more than the rise of clearing.

This year, not only have lower tariff institutions sought to use clearing as a tool to fill places, as would normally be the case, research intensive Russell Group universities have also begun to use clearing as a way of scooping up those students who perhaps did better than expected in their A-Levels.

Unthinkable even three years ago, the prestigious St George’s in London, offered places on its medicine undergraduate course for the first time this year.

And it’s hard not to see how this is the new normal, rather than a one off.

With universities now competing for fewer and fewer students, the onus is on institutions to launch ruthlessly targeted online marketing campaigns, attracting students using Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. These platforms can now be used to not only analyse prospective students’ feelings about an institution, but assess the global reach of the institution and develop marketing strategies based on social media interactions.

GK’s analysis has shown that a particular member of the Russell Group enjoyed over 27,000 mentions on social media, yet with only a net positivity rating of 8%; highlighting that increased social media presence does not always translate into attracting students.

With large HEIs running annual turnovers akin to big businesses, it’s no great surprise the change in higher education marketing has been swift and stark as they look to maintain these revenues.

Our research indicates that institutions who may have previously traded on their name alone to attract students are finding it increasing difficult to recruit and retain in a crowded market.

Reputation is worth less when savvy students, paying premium fees, are now more focussed than ever on teaching quality and the return on their investment in the jobs market.

With such a changing market and more demanding students, it is essential that universities act ever more like businesses – assessing and mitigating policy risks, lobbying for change or spending more time assessing the power of their brand at home and overseas.

The market has changed, who benefits most will be those who embrace and exploit the new realities quickest.

In a market that has been dominated by the same ‘brands’ for hundreds of years that change could be seismic.

To find out more about GK’s analysis of the HE market in the wake of the A-level results, or how we can help you hone your brand, marketing and digital channel strategy for the future, contact johnny@gkstrategy.com

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