The sector has crossed a symbolic line. For the first time our Higher Expectations survey has recorded that, when selecting where to study, high-achieving prospective students now regard ‘strong links with industry’ and ‘good placement opportunities’ as being as important as university reputation.
In this HE Research Snippet we argue that this is a seminal moment for UK universities, particularly those in the traditional elite. It should encourage HE marketing professionals to pause and reflect on how their institution appeals to high achievers and whether or not they are effectively communicating their assets.
Fig 1. Importance: Reputation and employability factors - 2007-2015/16
Higher Expectations survey, 2007/8-2015/16 in response to: “How important were each of these factors in your decision about which university to choose” filtered on those achieving 400+ UCAS points on entry. Scale response: Very important, Quite important, Neutral, Not very important and Not at all important - only ‘very important’ responses charted. Questions have been rebased to exclude ‘don’t know’ responses, so base sizes vary per factor. Bases range from 1000 and 3000 across years. Higher Expectations asks questions about the importance of over forty choice factors, only four of which are displayed above. Chart includes Decision Making Dashboard interface which allows subscribers to analyse and compare Higher Expectations data. *2010 data was not collected and so a mid-point has been calculated between 2009 and 2011 data points
'Links with industry' and 'good placement opportunities' are now important to as many high achievers as university reputation
Course suitability has always been, and still remains, the most important driver of choice amongst all university applicants. Amongst high achievers (400+ UCAS points), university reputation and employability have, traditionally, also been very important when choosing where to study. In 2007 ‘links with industry’ and ‘good placement opportunities’ were, relatively speaking, of minority interest, but over the past decade, the importance of these requirements has become increasingly widespread, each having grown by 20 percentage points between 2007 and 2015. As a result, these factors now eclipse ‘university reputation, overall’ (which increased by 5 percentage points over the same period). See chart above.
Of course, industry links and placement opportunities are part of a university’s employability offering. And employability is a constituent of a university’s reputation. It is difficult to untangle these overlapping facets of student decision-making. But it is the job of HE marketing professionals — armed with high-quality trend data — to decouple these factors and respond to what is really driving choice. Over the past decade we have collected close to 120,000 interviews measuring the importance of employability and reputation with new starters – along with measuring over 40 other importance factors to help HEIs unpick these difficult questions.
Is your university competitively strong?
The game has been changing for a number of years and universities have obviously picked up on this. Recognition of universities' links with industry and placement opportunities has grown stronger in many parts of the sector, and marketing departments have communicated this change, often very effectively. However, some have been more successful than others. In our Higher Expectations study, we ask new starters at each university to rate how their institution ‘performed’ in relation to its links with industry, future employability, placement opportunities and employability overall, etc.
Over the past few years many elite universities have improved both their offering on employability and the way it is communicated. But even amongst those who do well, performance is very mixed (see chart below). Subscribers to Higher Expectations can view – and analyse – the results, institution by named institution, and review their relative performance.
Performance: strong links with industry - three elite HEIs - 2007-2015/16
Higher Expectations survey, 2007/8-2015/16 in response to: “Thinking back to when you were choosing universities, do you agree or disagree that your university…”. Scale response: Strongly agree, Agree, Neutral, Disagree and Strongly disagree - only ‘Strongly agree’ responses charted. Questions have been re-based to exclude ‘don’t know’ responses. Base sizes vary per institution by year.
The decision-making environment has shifted
We believe there has been a structural change in the sector. It is a change in the environment in which potential students are making decisions and our research shows that today’s most academically accomplished first year students see a degree’s value fundamentally differently than their forebears from a decade ago.
Elite HEIs will need to demonstrate not only their research and teaching excellence, but they will also need to actively demonstrate and clearly communicate how linked they are with industry. Currently the efforts of universities to this end are mixed. And for those outside the traditional elite, there is genuine opportunity to step outside the discourse on reputation and instead focus on many of the areas where they have traditionally excelled. In this new world, the measures of success and failure are clear.
It's never been more crucial to get your institution's marketing spot on.