Isolation Generation: Looking Ahead to the Sector's Most Unique Recruitment Challenge | Guest Blog with Sarah Barr Miller

HE Thinking | 23 Sep 2020


YouthSight's Josephine Hansom (Managing Director of Insight) has been working with our client Sarah Barr Miller (Head of Data Insights at UCAS) to provide insights into the applicant mindset. In this joint guest blog, Sarah and Josephine reflect on the research and provide predictions into the year ahead for the HE sector. 

The first sign of trouble came in January

International students from SE Asia, home for the holidays, didn’t return to their studies on time. Many of those who did took a swift flight back as the virus began to spread. Less than a month later, the education sector implemented a temporary digital learning experience.

For undergraduates, it has been a difficult change. For upper-sixth students, it has been harder, compounding the stress of university choices. For students returning now for their final year of school - next year’s target market - who knows the impact?

Questions like this have gone largely unanswered so far.

Not through the absence of a decision-maker, but through losing direct access to the market. The chance to engage with prospective students diminished as Open Days went online and schools shut, and the opportunity to meaningfully engage with current students disappeared when classes followed suit.

So as the 2020 intake finally begins its studies, student recruitment and admissions departments look ahead to the sector’s most unique recruitment challenge of a generation, with less data than ever before. We hope that joint UCAS – Youthsight research, conducted directly with next year’s potential applicants, will help.

The Year 12 mindset

Let’s start with the good news. The demand to progress is clear. Despite the cancellation of physical events, the number of pre-applicants registering with UCAS is at a record level and the vast majority (80%) of the Year 12s and S6s and are still set on heading to university in 2021, while the others are still assessing their options. Therefore, the other side of the coin is that 1 in 5 of next year’s applicants (up to 200,000 students) are unsure. Half of them are unsure in the “I’m considering other options, like placement years” way, whilst the other half are unsure of attending next year at all.

History suggests that demand for higher education weathers recession, but this doubt may lead applicants to bide their time, or hedge their bets.

Information sources

This is, perhaps, something we can have a say in. Almost 90% of next year’s applicants are already in the advanced research stages of their applications, but 59% don’t have enough information to make their decisions. We wrote about how misinformation is going to change minds for this year’s students, but for next year it’s the lack of information which appears to be the biggest obstacle.

They’re looking for clarity in different places, too. There is obvious growth in virtual open days and virtual school events, but university websites are now seen as more important by 57% of all students. UCAS, too, by more than 40%.

At the other end are parents, friends, and league tables; all of which are either not being used, or are now seen as less important.

As a reflection of the unanimous clamour for clarity during the pandemic, applicants are now placing their trust directly with first parties. For the HE sector, it means more scrutiny for their messaging, but also more demand. Who will shoulder this, whilst departments focus their efforts on making up for six months of missed teaching and pastoral staff work frantically to make campuses COVID safe? Universities, schools and UCAS must work together to coordinate an increased provision of advice and information.


And where an incoming recession might have gone unnoticed by teenagers of the 1990s, next year’s applicants are very aware of what’s coming over the hill.

More than half of all Year 12s assign more importance to ‘high graduate employment rates’ than pre-pandemic. Another fifth think the same for placement years.

One of the greatest challenges for lecturers the world over, of trying to get young people to think more about their future choices, has made more progress in six months than it has in decades. Year 12s are looking for recession-proof degrees, and the onus is on HEIs to convince them of their own efficacy.

On the domestic side, there has been a 10% drop in how applicants view the importance of living with their parents during study, and a 15% rise in looking for universities with a ‘great social scene’. Perhaps the impact of an isolation generation, most of whose world shrank to their family’s four walls during lockdown, is that next year’s applicants’ thirst for adventure has grown. The challenge for universities will be how to first develop an innovative social offering in the context of the ‘rule of six’ and then to effectively showcase this to applicants – no small task.

They’re asking for more from an industry already under the strain of so much unexpected change: for better and more frequent information, for invincible degrees that will help them withstand a recession, and a social scene to go alongside it.

So, what now?

Say what you will about the shortfalls of the new digital experience, but the sector has been crying out for it for years. Today’s students are Gen Z, some of the most agile and digitally-focussed customers in the world. They want the answer to everything in their pocket, but the HE sector is notoriously slow to adapt. Centuries-old institutions don’t pivot so easily.

And whilst universities can be forgiven for their rushed online open days, the forward thinkers will use this head start to build lasting and meaningful digital experiences. Imagine the benefits of being able to recruit internationally without the cost of travel, or advertise more easily to lower income family students, without expecting them to swallow the expense of multiple campus trips.

Or communicate with their market, with clarity and cost-efficiency.

A global pandemic wasn’t in anybody’s business plan, but an upsurge in digital agility could be the silver lining.


Win over next year's applicants 

We offer a suite of research tools tailor-made for HE professionals that take the stress and uncertainty off your shoulders - all available instantly and on a budget that suits your institution.

Find out the answers to your specific questions and challenges and apply them to your recruitment strategy to win over next year's applicants. The suite offers: ongoing insight into the mindset of students, access to one-off reports, solutions to specific challenges or a few quick answers.

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Webinar Series - Catch up on demand

We partnered with our client at UCAS to bring a series of free insights to support HE professionals through these different times. The series will guide you through how your UG, PGT and prospective students are feeling throughout the crisis and what they are looking for from those around them. 

All the previous webinar recordings - including this one - are available to watch through UCAS and here you can also register for the next event.  

Register / Watch Webinars

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