Changes in prospective audiences, increased applicants and shifts in Clearing trends. Everything you need to help you plan your enrolment strategy for 2022. 

The UCAS end of cycle 2021 report is a useful resource, but do you really have time to pick through the data?

Good news, our experts have done the hard part for you. They've found the most useful pieces of insight to help you plan for the year ahead. So, what are the key takeaways?

1. A shift towards January applications

The number of 18-year-olds applying for university increased significantly between 2020 and 2021 (+7.8%). There were also strong increases in applicants aged 30-34 (+10.9%) and over 35 (+7.7%). 

UCAS data is showing a shift toward a larger proportion of applicants applying by the January deadline across all age ranges. And early indications from 2022 data are telling us that this trend is continuing in the 18-year-old traditional student. But 2022 trends are still unfolding, and we’ll be sure to keep our ears to the ground.

Universities need to adjust to this changing dynamic, investing more heavily in prospective students earlier on in their decision-making process. By aligning events, content, and advertising activity, making sure that they are driving students to open days in good time, institutions will ensure that their brand is front of mind for a wider audience at this crucial time.

2. Decrease in acceptance rates 

The decrease in acceptance rates has more of a negative impact on certain groups - namely, those from the lowest quintiles of POLAR4 and IMD measures, those from the north of England, and Black students. Let’s break this down: 

The widening gap of Q1 participation 

Looking to the participation among the POLAR quintiles, students in Q1, already the most disadvantaged, have been the worst off in 2021 in terms of acceptance into HE. The acceptance rate for Q1 decreased by 3.7 percentage points, while it only decreased by 2.7 percentage points for Q5. Meanwhile, the actual number of acceptances increased by 0.3% for Q1 but by 1.3% for Q5. 

Using data to understand your target audience and where they fit on the POLAR 4 scale will allow you to refine your widening participation strategy and improve tactical marketing techniques, increasing enquiries and enrolments from students in lower quintiles. Here are two considerations when looking to widen participation: 

  • Tech poverty is a very real thing. When targeting some communities consider providing fully offline journeys to e.g. book an open day or engage with the university.
  • Barriers to participation can be complex and can't always be overcome by the brevity of messaging on advertising. Consider using content marketing or longer format ad types such as sequential ads to help convey more complex messages or share student stories.

The continuing trend of lack of access for Black Students

Acceptance rates vary by ethnicity, but with the acceptance rate for Black students 3.4 percentage points below the next group, and Black applicants being the only group with an acceptance rate below 80%, this is a troubling trend of access afforded to Black students. What’s more, this gap has widened since 2019. 

It’s really important to address the needs, motivations and barriers of every group of students that you are trying to connect with, beyond your more traditional student. Read our 2020 report for an in-depth and rich insight into how Black students feel and what they look to their universities and institutions for.

3. Increase in applicants with a disability

The total number of applicants with a disability has been increasing year on year since 2012. Applicants with a declared disability have also been increasing as a proportion of total applicants in that time frame (from 7.5% to 13.7%). The numbers are small, but the trends are positive - more people with disabilities are applying to university and/or declaring their disability, and more of them are being accepted.  

But there’s more work to be done. It’s critical for institutions to assess whether widening access and participation initiatives are effective. And if objectives aren’t being met? Look to the focus and positioning your institution has dedicated to groups such as disabled students, and who are devising these plans. Are you speaking to representative teams who oversee inclusivity and diversity on campus? Or listening to individuals with lived experience? Taking these measures will help ensure the messaging aligns with what these often marginalised groups want. Here are a few things to consider:

  • Think about whether you can make disability a seamless part of your advertising and marketing, rather than an exception that makes those with a disability feel "othered"
  • Assess how accessible you can make your open day without having to wait for someone who's registered to make a special request
  • Do you have British Sign Language speakers on hand as a matter of course? Is all signage offered in Braille? Are all the various support professionals always there and ready to talk to anyone who wants to engage with them?
  • Do you include testimonials from students with disabilities, either visible or invisible, as part of your marketing?

And one final point before we go…

Enter the market early for Clearing! Even more so if you’re perhaps relying on Clearing this year to fill places. This means building brand engagement, reserving sufficient budget to match competition in market, and having seamless customer user journeys for the traditional cohort. What’s more, use data and market insight (like the National Clearing Survey) to understand the opportunity of the mature audience. Question how you can align your strategy, portfolio and course positioning to this audience on the right channels at the right time and there really is a huge opportunity to be had.

We will be taking a first look at the 2022 UCAS data at the end of February, so look out for a follow-up very soon to see what else to expect going forward. 

But understanding the data is only the first step. Don’t hesitate to get in touch with one of our experts if you want to discuss how these insights can help inform your recruitment strategy for the year ahead.

Article by

Nick Willmer

Head of Marketing