2020 Hindsight and the Trends to Watch | HE Research Snippet #38

HE Thinking | 16 Jan 2020


Last January we tipped the trends to watch in 2019. As a new decade unfolds, we thought we should apply some 2020 hindsight to our predictions and see what topics came to the boil and which were merely a flash in the pan.

Our powers of prediction proved to be more long-sighted than far-sighted, but at least three of our forecasts were spot on, some were partly right and none were downright wrong. We're marking that down as a solid 2:1.

1. Brexit brakes it

We said: International student numbers are vulnerable to the reputational damage of Brexit.

Verdict: Brexit still hasn't happened and already the numbers are shifting for some.

The total number of international students has continued to rise from both the (non-UK) EU and the rest of the world, but new entrants have been falling since a high point before the Brexit referendum in 2016.

The pressure has not been felt evenly though: recruiting universities have seen falls in enrolments, while selective universities have barely registered a wobble. Overall international numbers have also relied on a rising proportion of postgrads (particularly in research) to stay buoyant. The trend is not strong yet, but YouthSight will keep updating research on what matters to international students in 2020 as Brexit finally happens (or not).


2. The teeth of TEF

We said: Our undergraduate tracker revealed that over two-thirds of undergraduate applicants hadn't even heard of TEF, but our focus groups might be detecting a shift.

Verdict: TEF has indeed gained some ground.

In 2018, two-thirds of undergraduate applicants hadn't heard of TEF. Last year just over half (53%) had and almost one in three (31%) described it as 'influential' in their choice of institution. That's consistent with the 66% of applicants who rate good teaching as 'very important'.

Last year, Dame Shirley Pearce’s review of TEF was expected, but its publication was held up by the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, who wrote to OfS in October urging full steam ahead with subject-level TEF in 2021 and a “new TEF model”. This may mean the Government intends to ride roughshod over her recommendations or that her report is more tweak than overhaul. Either way, when it’s finally released, we are promised accompanying research by The Office for National Statistics on the metrics, by The British Council on international attitudes on TEF, and by UCAS on applicants’ views. Of course, our undergraduate tracker can give you much of that insight already!

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3. What will Augar augur?

We said: Any fee changes in the wake of the review of post-18 education funding in England would send shockwaves through the system for both undergrad and postgrad recruitment as would be shown by our postgraduate tracker's findings on fee sensitivity.

Verdict: Too early to say.

After more delays by the DfE, Philip Augar finally delivered his report at the end of May – in both senses. (It coincided with Theresa May’s final few weeks in office). For May's successor, Augar's proposed reduction in fees was hardly an electoral silver bullet to win over the youth vote, so, by the time of last month’s general election, no manifesto was promising to pursue it and the new Government has announced its plans. 

Some of Augar’s recommendations – particularly on more funding for further education students and colleges – may find some fertile soil in 2020, but the problem of funding students in England may continue to fester.


4. Ready, steady, GO

We said: The new Graduate Outcomes (GO) dataset might be significant politically, but perhaps less so when it comes to student choice.

Verdict: Too early to say.

We were right to think politicians would hunker down on earnings data. In May, then Education Secretary Damian Hinds dismissed degrees whose graduates earn less than £25,000 in 5 years as “poor value”. He’s wasn’t the only member of the Government to regard student choice in purely financial terms.

This is, in part encouraged by data from the LEO study (Longitudinal Educational Outcomes) which is comprehensive, but, mostly earnings-related. The first GO survey

findings won’t actually be published until the Spring, but when they do appear, they should give more detail than either LEO or GO’s predecessor, DHLE about the kind of jobs graduates are doing rather than just the salaries they get for doing them.

Our Undergraduate Success dashboard reveals that the importance of employability to students has remained consistently high this year (56% rate it as ‘very important’), and our HE Marcomms dashboard shows how and when it shapes applicants’ decision-making.


5. Applicants' unconditional love

We said: The rise in unconditional offers would get more controversial and universities would innovate in their strategies in response.

Verdict: Sure enough, 'conditional unconditionals' acquired quite a notoriety during 2019.

Back in April, politicians – ever eager to show concern – commissioned a review into fair admissions processes that, by the end of the year hadn’t actually started and, in the Conservative Manifesto had been downgraded to “exploring ways to improve the application and offer system”. Not to worry, Universities UK has launched review of its own.



6. Ranking the rankings 

We said: Vice chancellors care deeply about league tables, but do applicants regard them with as much importance?

Verdict: Domestic league tables might be losing influence, but among international students, they’re still strong.

As ever more rankings join the fray (Nando’s proximity ranking, anyone?), the influence of each individual list might be expected to drop. Our Undergraduate Success dashboard suggests that, although overall reputation remains ‘very important’ to 38% of applicants (making it is the sixth most important factor), the importance of league tables specifically has lost a couple of percentage points from a high of 28% in 2015.

International students, however, do place more weight on rankings – whether this is because rankings themselves matter, or because they end up being a proxy for more complex attributes, is something our research will continue to unwrap.

This year we’ll be publishing another analysis comparing where applicants think that universities rank and how they actually perform in league tables. We’re expecting to see some interesting discrepancies.


7. Disciplined brands

We said: As the subject level

TEF approaches – and possible differential fees, will university marketing become less about the institutions and more about the subject?

Verdict: No noticeable change.

Subject-level TEF assessments won’t be published until next year at the earliest and the call for differential fees has died down. So we’re yet to see widespread discipline-based marketing effort, but, as our undergraduate tracking shows, varying patterns of expectations between students applying to different courses. There are perhaps opportunities for universities to explore.


8. Making welfare fare well 

We said: Student welfare would continue to be a hot topic in 2019, with possible implications for student recruitment.

Verdict: Concern around risks to students' welfare did increase, while actual problems may have reduced.

Welfare did remain in the headlines through a number of student suicides and instances of sexual abuse. These cases were tragic and, we hope, exceptional. Their impact on recruitment is hard to unpick from the background, but media coverage about failure in the duty of care is never welcome, but necessary all the same.

Less high-profile was a continuing tide of concern throughout the sector about mental health and safeguarding. Our State of the Youth Nation tracker surprisingly showed a fall this year in mental health concerns among young people, including students, although, as a group, the proportion expressing concerns (39%) remained higher than non students (31%).

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9. Will we keep it brief?

We said: The English Government wants to see more two-year accelerated degrees and, while it’s private providers that are keenest to explore the opportunities, more traditional universities may diversify their offering.

Verdict: The Government has continued to bang on about accelerated degrees, but with less bang and more acceptance that maybe the student market just isn’t there.

The Education Secretary’s guidance to OfS in October urged them to do more to “raise awareness” of accelerated degrees. The number of universities offering accelerated programmes has grown, but it’s still no more than a couple of dozen. They are all post-92 institutions or private providers.

We were right though, that universities would diversify their offering, albeit in other ways. Higher and degree-level apprenticeships have continued to grow, suggesting that the student market sees a quickie degree as less attractive than being paid while you combine work and study.


Trending topics to watch for 2020

1. Will the English Government finally bite the bullet and get radical about student funding?

2. Will universities start to think more locally in terms of their student catchment area?

3. Will this be the year we make plans to abandon A level predictions and offers in favour of a post-qualification application system? 

4. Will this be the year we see a big Brexit bump on international student numbers?

5. Will we see the rise of interdisciplinary degree? 

6. Will we see the decline of chalk-and-talk lecture?

7. Will the Government introduce sanctions for 'poor value' degrees or 'grade inflation'?

What's next? 

Want to stay ahead of the trends and boost your university's attraction, recruitment and conversion?

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Whether you need higher education market research consultancy to address specific marketing challenges or access to our HE Success Suite of four tracking products for instant answers, the beauty of working with us is that you never start from zero.

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