HE Research Snippet 15 - Open Days: Getting The Basics Wrong

Img source: University of NewCastle Open day 2017

Higher Education Research Team at YouthSight
Higher Education Research Team at YouthSight

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Img source: University of NewCastle Open day 2017

Open days matter more than ever.

Open Days are becoming increasingly influential on how students make decisions. While the numbers of students attending has only increased by a little over the last six years, the level of influence Open Days have on students’ decisions of where to study has risen considerably.

In Higher Expectations 2007/08, a little over a third (37 per cent) of prospective students rated the open day as very important in their decision on where to study. By 2013/14, this had reached almost half (47 per cent).

Graph1CHO10. How important [was the open day] in your decision about which university to choose? Base: All respondents. Respondents are asked to answer on a 5 point scale from ‘Very important’ to ‘Not at all important. Each bar reflects the proportion who answered ‘very important’

Considering how influential open days are on those who attend, it’s incongruous to see that almost a quarter (24 per cent) of undergraduates didn’t visit the university they ultimately choose. Even at institutions where only small proportions of students secure their places through Clearing, open day attendance rates can be low. Six Russell Group institutions have attendance rates in the bottom quartile. So, a large minority are not influenced by open days at their chosen institutions simply because they do not attend.


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Universities need to impress prospective students and parents

Despite surprisingly low levels of attendance, the challenge is getting more intense for universities. While the proportion of prospective students attending open days has been fairly flat, the growth in the numbers of parents accompanying prospective undergraduates is striking. Each university is increasingly challenged to cater for the needs of these two distinct groups, without the possibility of influencing any more prospective students. The risk of the open day is becoming larger as the opportunities for disappointing a wider group of investigators become more numerous. Universities are being challenged to do more than ever to simply hold their competitive position, let alone to improve it.

Graph2DEC16. Who came with you on the open day(s) at the university? Base: Higher Expectations; All open day responses (of open days attended before making the firm choice) Each point reflects the proportion who attended an open day with at least one parent


Not all universities are keeping up

Higher Expectations gives us insight into how effectively universities have kept up with expectations among prospective students. In this competitive marketplace, it’s one of the few chances universities have to engage face-to-face with prospective students. But, as it has been in previous years, the degree of positive impact from open days remains highly variable between universities.

Graph3DEC6A. Did the open day make you want to go to the university more or less? Base: Higher Expectations; All open day responses. Each point reflects the proportion who selected ‘More likely’ at the institutional level

We can’t say that these rates alone are an absolute performance measure. One of the core functions of an open day is to connect those considering study with the likely study experience, and hence enable them to judge if a university is right for them. In many cases, the ideal outcome for prospective student and university is that it is identified in the investigation stage that the university is not for them and the focus moves elsewhere.

The differences in the above graph might be explained entirely by these variations if the most selective universities have the lowest scores. However, that is not the case. Russell Group institutions are spread fairly evenly across the spectrum. There are other things going on.

Another measure in Higher Expectations, whether an attendee was ‘generally impressed’ by the open day, is a more reliable measure of performance. Even at the university most highly rated on this measure, only around two thirds of prospective student attendees (64 per cent) strongly agreed they were impressed by the open day. On average, under half (47 per cent) strongly agreed they were impressed. For three quarters of universities, less than half of prospective students strongly agreed that the open day was ‘well organised/professional’.


Does reputation correlate with best recorded experiences?

However, it might be that being impressed by an open day is just an expression of a university’s reputation. Maybe prospective students are feeding-back on the brand image of the university they visit rather than on their true experiences on the day. If this were the case, those perceived as the most elite would record the best experience as the prophecy was fulfilled. But, Higher Expectations reveals that this is not the case universally.

Russell Group universities on average receive better feedback on how impressed prospective students were. Over the last three years of Higher Expectations, they were scored seven percentage points higher on prospective students being ‘generally impressed’. Over those three years, the trend is towards the gap between the Russell Group and post-92 institutions growing. It might be that members of the Russell Group are exploiting the potential, and managing the growing risk of, open days better than post-92 institutions.

However, the average masks the range of scores and the individual stories. Neither the Russell Group nor modern universities are homogenous groups. Performance on being generally impressed is highly variable within groups. There are many instances of modern universities doing better than Russell Group institutions on the proportion who are generally impressed. So, impressing potential students at open days is not an inescapable product of circumstances. The choices universities of all kinds make matter.


How it goes wrong

To find-out what the influencers of success are in the open day, we asked attendees to tell us what put them off. The graph below gives the results taken from a Student Omnibus Survey in July 2014.

Graph4Base: Student Omnibus (c.1,000 responses)

Overwhelmingly, the issues highlighted were intangibles and related to people and organisation. 34 per cent cited rude of unhelpful staff. 12 per cent cited lack of, or poor, information. 12 per cent cited the day being badly organised. 8 per cent pointed to rude of unhelpful ambassadors. 8 per cent cited not being made to feel welcome. Only a quarter (26 per cent) highlighted poor facilities as the main factor that put them off applying.


How to make it right

Open days are growing in influence, and divergent needs on the day are becoming increasingly tricky to meet. In a more competitive market, Open Days present more marketing opportunities, and more strategic risk, than ever before. The quality of open days varies considerably between universities. This variation cannot be explained solely by perceived reputation. Organisational and interpersonal aspects of open days are important and can be changed. It’s up to each institution how well it maximises the opportunities and manages the risk.

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