There’s only one constant in the education sector – change.

The release of the UK government’s higher education white paper in 2016 has set the sector on a course for massive upheaval. As state support for universities dwindles and tuition fee restrictions lift, the higher education sector is looking more and more like an open commercial marketplace. 

Facing competition from international institutions and non-traditional higher ed platforms, the UK’s universities are working harder than ever to capture students’ imaginations. 

There will be winners and losers. The difference between the two, though, will likely not come down to academic success. Rather, it’s our ability to understand our students’ needs and respond to them that will make the difference in an increasingly competitive landscape.

Here at The Brand, we’ve been doing significant research into what makes a successful brand work. More specifically, we wanted to understand our target audience and get realistic about why they choose the institutions that they do. We wanted to find out what students say to each other – not what they tell parents, teachers or authority figures. 

We went in thinking we knew pretty much what students look for in a university.

Boy, were we wrong.

Here are a few of the learnings we took from the process, along with real-life quotes from students. 

“The name sounded cool. Nope, that’s not a joke.”

I think a lot of us here in the education sector would love to believe that students make careful, rational choices about which universities they attend. After all, we know just how much of a difference the right institution can make.

They, however, might not. Rather than judging students for that, we should think carefully about what it means. After all, many haven’t had the life experience to understand what kind of impact their choices will have. And they might not have the right guidance, either.

Even amongst the most discerning students, personal affinity with a University brand was a recurring theme in our research. Students were extremely aware that their choice was about lived experiences, not purely academic outcomes. They were making emotional choices.  

“The academics would have been similar at any of the places I was considering. So I looked at rankings for on-campus food and chose based on that.”

Differentiating your brand might seem simple at an institutional level; your partnerships are unique, your learning outcomes are carefully orchestrated and you have a rare heritage. 

However, students might not always understand these differences. Or, at least, they might not understand what these differences really mean for their campus experience. If you’re going to build your brand around a strong academic standing, make sure your messaging is anchored in real-life experiences and outcomes. Without those, you’re just going to blend in with the rest. 

But there’s something else we can take away from this one – that the little things really do matter. Our research shows that the smaller details – the quality of the food, the atmosphere of the campus, the availability of support – had just as much impact as the big, academic issues (if not more!).

“I focused on where I can GROW the most.”

Growth was a theme that came up again and again. It’s reassuring to know that this is a concern for students in 2020. However, this theme is so well-trodden in higher-ed marketing it’s almost prospectus cliché. How can your institution convince students that your campus is the place they will grow the most?

The students we connected with had a much more holistic idea of growth than simple academic terms. It was about feeding them the resources they need, nurturing them in the right direction and exposing them to new situations that would push their comfort zones. Making these elements tangible is the challenge we face as industry professionals.  

“Purely financial reasons.”

Higher Education doesn’t happen in a bubble. If you’re not taking into consideration your students’ financial welfare, you’re going to struggle to ride the wave of the open higher-ed market. That means making financial support a priority, not an afterthought, in your offering. 

How often have you seen financial information relegated to the back pages of a course brochure? Maybe it’s time to buck that trend. 

“I loved both locations from the virtual tours. One school offered me 5K more than the other, though it was much farther from home. I looked at the pros and cons of both schools and realized my heart was already set.”

International students face an even tougher time deciding on their place of study. Without being able to visit the grounds and get a feel for the location, technology and branding became a huge factor in the decision-making process. In these cases, having your brand on-point for your target audience is an even bigger concern. Remember, though, that your institution can’t be all things to all people. You need to know who exactly it is that you’re marketing to.

In conclusion

The overwhelming consensus in our research is that students are deeply aware that an academic education isn’t just a tool – it’s a sizeable period of their lives that they’ll never get back. Spending those years happily, safely and productively was a major concern. There’s deep wisdom in that line of thinking and institutional leaders can learn a lot from it.

So, should you leave your prestige-focussed brand behind in favour of a more experiential coms strategy? 

Well, not entirely. 

Reading between the lines, it was clear that academic standing and heritage continues to act as the ground-work upon which students base their decisions. 

Many of them felt herded-in to a perceived layer of the university hierarchy, picking between institutions they believed to be on the same level as themselves. Students only ever see a handful or institutions as academically ‘realistic’ for them and make a choice between five or six – rather than five or six hundred – institutions. That list is usually compiled based on outside influences such as parents, teachers, other students, the news, media and even movies.

The decision between them, though, is almost always based on how a university makes them feel.