The challenges of undergraduate recruitment post-Brexit (if it ever happens)


As the UK’s scheduled departure date from the European Union looms, what are the potential hurdles that universities face in attracting talented undergraduates, both from the UK and Europe?


Recruiting UK students


Education Secretary Damian Hinds has insisted that tuition fees, increased to £9,000 a year under the coalition government, have not deterred would-be undergraduates, and that the number of applications has risen. Yet the market for undergraduates UK-wide remains competitive.


A number of challenges remain, including:


  • The removal of the cap on student numbers means universities can offer as many undergraduate places as they wish, thereby increasing competition for fee-paying students.
  • The marketing of initiatives such as Clearing and UCAS Extra (which offers another chance to gain a university place if all five original applications were unsuccessful or declined) is growing, meaning universities need to instigate marketing activities earlier in the application cycle.
  • More incentives are being offered, including scholarships and fee waivers worth thousands in student loans. Other perks include cash or laptops.
  • The typical four-year course length in Scotland, compared with the standard three elsewhere in the UK, can cause confusion among prospective students.
  • Institutions are being urged to enhance student diversity and target under-represented groups.
  • Demographic shifts mean the number of 18-year-olds is falling by around 2% year-on-year in the UK, while demand for university places among mature students and those aged 19 is declining. (However, 18-year-olds are statistically still more likely to apply.)


Maintaining numbers of EU students post-Brexit


A recent TheStudentRoom poll found that 39% of EU students are less likely to study here because of Brexit (source: TSR, 2018).


Among the UK’s 1.6m first-time university undergraduates, around 80,000 are European (source: HESA). While applications from this group have been buoyant since the EU referendum, the Higher Education Policy Institute think-tank forecasts that numbers could slide by up to 60% post-Brexit.


While EU students beginning their studies this autumn will pay the same fees as British undergraduates, the long-term situation is unclear.



International students


Global student mobility is likely to be affected by the political situations in Britain and the US, as competition for international students intensifies.


Meanwhile, other nations are capitalising on the political uncertainties, with Chinese universities increasingly gaining in global standing while universities in Canada, Australia and New Zealand attract more overseas undergraduates (source: Studyportals, 2018).


As demand from EU students declines, the number of students from China, Hong Kong, Thailand and Nigeria is expected to grow (source: QES UK’s recent International Student Survey).


How should campus marketing teams respond?


Strategies most likely to succeed include innovative ones that focus on value for money, align with particular student sectors or adopt country-specific scenarios. Agility and flexibility will be vital.


Moreover, with the outcome of Brexit a key – if uncertain – factor, the first quarter of 2019 could prove pivotal.


Key marketing points


  • Look at potential students’ social media consumption, especially among ‘Generation Z’ applicants – and consider pushing personalised, experience-focused messages.
  • Increasingly, aspiring students follow what’s going on across higher education, from finances to policy and employment outlook. Understand their expectations, and meet them via paid-for and organic advertising.
  • Monitor changing trends in social media use – paid search and social media are set to continue eating into marketing budgets. While Instagram, YouTube and Snapchat will probably grow in importance, especially among teenagers, Facebook looks set to lose market strength.
  • Young people are becoming savvier in terms of ad avoidance techniques, including ad blockers.
  • Among Generation Z, the typical eight-second attention span is shorter by four seconds than that of Millennials (source: Forbes, 2018). Messages must be clear and quickly understood.
  • The use of micro-influencers is expected to increase – these social media users have between two thousand and 50,000 followers on their account(s), usually within a niche field.


Against this backdrop, university communications teams are likely to need every tool at their disposal to devise effective marketing strategies for the post-Brexit era.