How do students really choose which university to attend?

Oli Bridge from Student Hut takes a look at the commoditisation of Higher Education, and discusses how this is impacting the student's university choices.

There’s been a lot of debate in the past couple of years about whether higher education, and in particular university education, has become a commodity - something bought and sold to the highest bidder, prey to the laws of supply and demand.

The Guardian’s Academics Anonymous blog series, in which “academics tell it like it is”, shows that the issue is thorny, provocative, and highly relevant. Articles like My students have paid £9000 and now they think they own me - which gathered a staggering 49,000 shares on social media, and some 4,362 comments from students and fellow academics on the Guardian’s website late last year - highlight the ferocious high-stakes game at play. Claims from the author that “the government has turned students into customers who have no respect for academics and refuse to work for their grades” have invited embattled responses from students.

So what is the truth? Do modern students really see degrees as a means to an end, a price to pay for a better career, one forged in stone in exchange for a cool £27,000 tuition fee?

This question is crucial to any university marketer. If a student has now become a “buyer of careers” not a “student of knowledge” then surely, we need to know. If they want a career, you need to be selling them a career. If they want knowledge, you need to be selling them knowledge. If they want something else entirely, you need to know what it is.

The thorny issue of education as a commodity doesn’t just affect our current models of student attraction and retention. It may throw up entirely new challenges, like whether students will expect refunds if the teaching is not up to scratch, or if they don’t get a job straight out of university. You may raise your eyebrows, but Udacity, a US based online education site (growing at a terrifying rate) offer just that if you don’t land a job immediately after passing your course.

Recent political events, and articles like those in The Guardian prove that students care greatly about their educational choices, and they will fight if they feel their views are being ignored or bypassed. After all, it is their £27,000 at stake.

Students will fight if they feel their views are being ignored or bypassed.
After all, it’s their £27,000 at stake.

The next five years will be frightening and challenging times for universities. You need only look at Tripadvisor, Glassdoor and sites like Udacity to see a glimpse of the future for university marketing, and if university has in fact become a ‘buying’ decision, you need to pay close attention to young people’s purchasing habits. For example, a recent Ipsos Millennials Social Influence Study found that “Millennials spend 30% of their time consuming user generated content”, and that “user reviews are 20% more influential on their purchasing decisions than any other media”.

At Student Hut, we believe that most HE decisions in the next five years will be driven by user generated content (i.e. “what did other students think of my course?”), and we are working with universities to manage this trend. A record 20,000 reviews on our site in just 2 years since launch, proves that today’s students have an insatiable appetite for sharing and consuming each other’s opinions.

Paradigm shifts like this matter, and all of us in the HE space need to identify them early so we can shape our response intelligently.

Find out more at YMS ‘16 - “The anatomy of a student's university choice”

At #YMS16, and to coincide with the launch of University profiles and rankings on our site, Student Hut will be releasing a significant piece of market research that asks the students themselves what they think about the “commoditisation” of higher education.

Conducted with over 1,000 students, we’ll be revealing broad reaching insights, including student motivations for attending university, the key issues affecting their choice of university, and their opinions on the government's proposed Teaching Excellence Framework.

Put simply, we’ll be attempting to piece together the anatomy of the modern student’s university choice. If the comments in the Guardian article are anything to go by, the results will make interesting reading and will be indispensable for anyone interested in marketing to prospective students in 2016 and beyond.

So, any university marketers wondering “how do students really choose which university to attend?”, please drop by stand #9 at the Roundhouse and pick up a free copy of our research.

You can catch Student Hut at #YMS16 where they’ll be speaking in the Higher Education stream on the 9th of March: "New research: The anatomy of a student's university decision". 

Haven't gotten your tickets for YMS LDN 2016 yet? Head on over to our event page for more information on the biggest youth marketing conference in Europe.