The last few years have seen major changes in higher education in the UK; a sector that was more used to quiet evolution previously. The changes can be traced back to the coalition government’s ‘Students at the heart of the system’ white paper in 2011, the enabling of a dramatic increase in undergraduate tuition fees for English universities, up to a maximum of £9,000, in 2012, and the removal of central control on recruitment numbers.
Since then, not the least of the shocks has been Brexit, which is predicted by many to have a major negative impact on universities’ recruitment of EU students, to add to uncertainty about international student recruitment, related to immigration policies.
The dynamics of the sector are now completely different. The outgoing chief executive of UCAS said in her ‘end of cycle’ report in December 2016 ‘When I took over at UCAS in 2010, students chased places – now the places chase them’. Marketisation is a jargon word used, often pejoratively, to describe what is happening in UK HE, and students as consumers. Whatever the terminology, there is no doubt that HE has changed forever.
There is also no doubt that financial pressure is building, on at least some universities. HEFCE’s most recent report, in November last year, on the financial health of the sector suggested ‘a widening gap between the lowest- and highest-performing institutions and increasing volatility of forecasts in the sector’, with forecast surpluses by institution ranging from ‘a deficit of 28.6 per cent to a surplus of 21.5 per cent in 2017-18’.
From a strategic and marketing perspective, what can and should universities be doing as a result of all the changes? Two broad courses of action are suggested.
1: Size and Shape
The removal of the cap on undergraduate UK and EU recruitment numbers has provided a big opportunity for universities but it will only be right for some to take advantage. Expansion clearly comes at a price, in terms of staff and facilities, and brings increased risk at a time of increased uncertainty.
If not already undertaken, universities need a major review of what they want their size and shape to be in the future. Size with regard to overall numbers but also undergraduate versus postgraduate, domestic versus international, directly delivered education versus partnerships etc. Shape includes issues such as breadth of faculties and courses offered, emphasis and investment in research versus teaching, the extent of face to face education as opposed to blended or remote learning, and facilities offered to students.
In the past, most universities have had stated intentions for growth, within the previous student recruitment limitations. Now, consolidation is absolutely a viable option and one that is likely to be more appropriate for some institutions (the UCAS ‘end of cycle’ report indicates that a number of universities are already taking that route).
A consolidation approach also needs to consider breadth. There has been a tendency for universities to try to be all things to all people; hard decisions now need to be made about less reputable faculties or departments and where the focus should be, so that the institution can concentrate on and promote a strong core. This includes a hard look at proposals for new programmes; a HEFCE report from 2012 concluded that only 10% of new undergraduate single subject programmes could be considered successful. With estimated programme development costs at £200m, this suggested that £180m of NPD costs did not achieve a return for institutions.
Alongside size and shape, distinctiveness is an increasingly important issue for universities to address. How can they genuinely stand out, to target audiences such research funding bodies and industry as well as prospective students, in an increasingly competitive and crowded marketplace?
The typical ‘inside > out’ approach of ‘broadcasting’ (shouting louder) what you think you’re good at will not work unless it’s based on real insights from ‘outside > in’. How is the institution really perceived by the outside world versus its peer group, who are this peer group in reality (not always those assumed), what is being said about it on social media forums for instance regarding student experience, and what is important to those having to make a choice? According to UCAS, almost two thirds of students with some A level grade profiles now get five out of five offers; that’s tough competition even after short listing, and (good) distinctiveness is imperative.
A distinctive position can and should evolve over time but it needs to be established in the first place, and established on the basis of depth of insight, and then communicated in a motivating and appealing way. Many universities are becoming increasingly innovative in their ‘campaigns’, particularly digital; not always, however, grounded in a relevant and appropriate proposition and positioning.
The HE sector has many opportunities and many challenges, and the gap between ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ will inevitably widen, even in the near future. As well as being reactive to changes, universities should be proactive to take charge of their own destinies, and make sure they have the fundamental strategies in place to ensure they end up in the winning camp.