University admissions are changing – and at a phenomenal pace. Universities have always been competitive about admissions, and there has always been a mixed and complicated relationship between recruitment and selection. But in the last few years the pace has quickened. Students have been required to meet more and more of the direct costs of their studies through loans, through fee and funding changes. As a result – and rightly – they and their parents are increasingly discriminating about the choices to be made. In the last two years, the removal of the ‘cap’ on student numbers nationally has further intensified the competition: put crudely, any university can now recruit the numbers it wishes, and the dynamics of the market are shifting fast.
All this means that the way the University handles marketing, recruitment and admissions is changing. Beyond the traditional focus on preparing prospectuses and managing the UCAS procedure, there is now a close focus on post-offer recruitment. That means intensive work on converting applicants to student enrolments – because each potential student is holding offers from five universities. On Sunday, we ran the first ‘course open day’ of 2016: a day for students – most already holding offers from us – and their parents, to look at the full range of provision here at Sheffield Hallam. There was a strong emphasis on course content and transition to university life, alongside opportunities to look at student accommodation and support services.
It was a huge logistical operation: we were expecting over 3500 visitors, including over 1500 students and almost 2000 parents, carers and family members. Both City and Collegiate campuses were buzzing with lively activity, and it was striking to see just how effectively the University was working as a team to ensure a high quality experience for our visitors – from efficient check-in staffed by student ambassadors, through to the strong academic presence across departments, to the care which had gone into thinking about catering at scale.
I had the opportunity to talk to parents and students about the importance of getting their choices right. Stuart Smith, head of recruitment in the Faculty of Development and Society told potential law and criminology students that ‘if a choice works for you, it’s likely to work for us too’. That’s spot on. And prospective students had the chance not just to explore course, employability and financial issues, but to put what the University offers into the context of Sheffield as a city. There was scope to visit the full range of student accommodation: Nicola Rawlins, SHU’s director of admissions and UK recruitment, and I did the same, and were shown round student accommodation in Fenton House. The student leading us round explained that the student ambassadors had been paid an extra hour ‘for cleaning and tidying’ their rooms. It had worked.
For me, this was a fabulous opportunity to see how the University presents itself to potential students, but also to understand how different parts of the University work together to make big events work. Sunday was a bright, crisp day, and the campus looked wonderful: lively and engaged across the Owen, Adsetts and Stoddart buildings at City, whilst the bright winter sun bathed the stunning Heart of the Campus atrium in light at Collegiate. Everyone I spoke to was clear about the importance of the event and their own part in it, and it was a rewarding experience to be able to join them.
The undergraduate admissions market is already tight, with intense competition between universities across the region and nationally. It will get tighter as universities come to grips with demographic decline. The number of eighteen-year-olds in the UK falls by about 15% over the next seven years. Their expectations, already high, will almost certainly be stretched as the competitive market takes hold. The ways in which we approach recruitment and selection, application, conversions and admissions will have a huge impact on our ability to thrive as a University.