The future of student recruitment

From fixes to foresight: Jisc and Emerge Education insights for universities and startups.


Katie Bell, chief marketing officer (CMO), UCAS:

"In 2020 not only did UK universities have to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, both nationally and internationally, but we have also experienced the lowest 18-year-old school leaver demographic for more than 15 years, rising costs and fixed fees, the uncertainty of a fast-approaching Brexit and collapsing full-time and part-time employment.

"The consequences of these issues are far-reaching across universities and colleges. Jisc and Emerge Education brought together CMOs and heads of student recruitment from across the country to discuss the present and future of student recruitment. As a result of these conversations and sharing best practice across HE, in this long read we have identified opportunities for the sector to benefit from the learning and experiences of others.

"It is envisaged that these networks and discussions will continue over time and, in this way, we hope we can move the sector forward by sharing best practice, stay abreast of the technology evolutions around us, and continue to build the British higher education experience that is so globally esteemed."


In early 2020, Jisc and Emerge Education conducted research with more than fifty university senior leaders to understand their most pressing priorities over the next one to three years. Since then, universities have had to rapidly re-evaluate how they approach each of their top priorities through, and beyond, the pandemic. In response to the current crisis, Jisc and Emerge Education are publishing a series of short practical guides for university senior leaders and startup founders on how they can work together to effectively deliver the necessary transition. As part of the series, this long read will address what is arguably the single most pressing challenge faced by university senior leaders – student recruitment.

As tuition fees represent more than half of UK university income, the sector’s financial health is fundamentally reliant on student recruitment.

As tuition fees represent more than half of UK university income, the sector’s financial health is fundamentally reliant on student recruitment. At the same time, universities have been operating in an environment where cost increases have outstripped revenue growth, and financial sustainability has become the biggest existential threat faced by the sector. The unprecedented levels of uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 crisis have greatly exacerbated the scale of the challenge.

Now more than ever, university senior leaders are in need of new and innovative solutions that help address student recruitment.

In this long read we explore some of the challenges the pandemic has created for the sector in relation to student recruitment, both domestic and international. We look at how universities have responded and take a closer look at how three institutions are using the tech platforms Unibuddy and Enroly to improve recruitment. A market map of leading startups sets out available solutions that directly meet university needs around student recruitment. Finally, we propose a long-term view of how student recruitment will evolve over the next 10 years to become more automated and personalised, flexible and unified – and the short-term foundations that need to be laid to achieve it.

The wider context

Student recruitment in the UK is facing profound changes and challenges.

Demographic shifts

Demographic shifts, highlighted in the HEPI paper, Demand for higher education to 2035, suggest that an extra 40,000 full-time higher education places will be needed in England by 2035, given the rise in the 18-year-old population over the next fifteen years. If participation increases in the next fifteen years at the same rate as the average of the last ten years, then 358,000 extra full-time places would need to be created. Meanwhile, UUK’s A vision for universities finds that 82% of prospective students in England who are either unemployed, at risk of unemployment or looking to learn new skills would be keen to study individual modules of a university degree.

Changes to the admissions system

The move to a post qualifications admissions system (PQA), where university places are offered and awarded on grades rather than predictions, is firmly back on the horizon with recent reviews by UUK, UCAS and OfS, enthusiasm from the current secretary of state and a UUK sector-wide consultation on proposed ways forward. Whether PQA will help or hinder prospective students from non-traditional backgrounds is under debate but it will certainly have implications for school and university timetabling, at the very least. As well as the speed at which universities will have to process thousands of applications post results. It also raises questions about whether prospective students will have enough time to explore universities. There are opportunities for technology to help.

General challenges around international recruitment

“Growing international tension and changing trade relationships could have an impact on where students choose to study. What does a more isolated UK look like ten years down the line?”
Andy Blair, director of communications and external relations, University of Winchester

Defying many predictions, UK universities saw a record number of undergraduate students from outside the UK and the EU – 44,300 – starting their studies in autumn 2020. The numbers were, perhaps, a side-effect of New Zealand and Australia remaining closed and the COVID situation in the US continuing to worsen, alongside other existing underlying drivers, such as the impact of global politics and the appeal of the UK’s comparatively shorter degree courses. The reintroduction of the two year post-study work visa may also encourage international student applications, particularly from India.

The UK has been the second most popular international student destination (after the US) for many years but competition is increasing and the UK’s market share has dropped in 17 of the 21 top sending countries. The government has ambitions for the number of UK-hosted international students to increase to 600,000 per year by 2030 and to achieve this it will need to focus on key markets (identified by UUK International) (pdf). Universities will need to do this against the backdrop of a possible post-pandemic global recession that may accelerate trends such as intra-regional mobility, the expansion of transnational education and the recognition of online, distance and blended learning.

The full impact of Brexit is yet to be seen but in 2018/19 the number of EU students starting courses at Russell Group universities fell (by 3%) for the first time since 2012/13. The numbers dropped across the sector in 2019/20 to just under 30,000.

COVID-19: student recruitment challenges and responses

“I think I've probably seen more innovation in student recruitment in the last eight months than the previous 10 years that I was in the sector.”
Elliot Newstead, head of UK student recruitment and outreach, University of Leicester

On top of the underlying changes affecting student recruitment outlined above, in March 2020 it faced the sudden shock of the global pandemic, which shut universities, closed travel routes and changed the entire student experience.

The move to remote and blended learning represents a fundamental change to the learning offer – an in-person UK higher education experience – more usually offered to prospective students, whether domestic or international.

In autumn 2020, Jisc, Universities UK (UUK) and Emerge launched results of a comprehensive survey of HE leaders, lecturers and students. It illustrates that while leaders feel overwhelmed by the challenges, they believe change is here to stay and see great potential in the use of technology to create flexibility, break down geographic barriers and extend the institution’s reach.

Students, meanwhile, are open to the idea of flexible learning continuing post-pandemic. The latest (Feb 2021) Pearson and Wonkhe research into students’ experiences of online and blended learning found that the great majority want some aspects to continue, such as recorded lectures and online access to support services such as wellbeing and careers, and online tutorials or check-ins with tutors. Some students explicitly mentioned that they liked the flexibility of virtual learning, working at their own pace and not having to commute to campus.


The refocusing of learning and teaching required a change in the way recruitment services communicated with prospective students, most obviously in the wholesale move from in-person to virtual events. This was a radical shift and one that would most likely have been deemed completely impossible had it been suggested at any other time. However, it’s proved to be unexpectedly successful.

“In terms of recruitment, we'll definitely carry on doing a lot of the online events that we started over the past eight to nine months. It matters a lot to our staff and students that we are environmentally conscious. So the less time that we can spend on flights and the more time we can spend reducing our carbon footprint and doing in-depth work with students, parents, schools, funding bodies, governments, to get that deeper relationship, rather than a more superficial five minute meet at a student recruitment fair in Hong Kong, for example, the better for our students and for everyone.”
Chris Bustin, associate director (global), University of Greenwich

Student recruitment teams have found the benefits to be wide-ranging. They have expanded their reach and flexibility by not having to be present in person while also reducing their travel time. The presentations that would have been given in schools and at fairs are now online resources, accessible on-demand to schools and prospective students at a time that suits them, and available for repeat playing as they consider their options.

Prospects ran a series of online postgraduate recruitment fairs in the summer and had a fantastic response from students with more than 2000 attending. However, we have seen a trend of reduced attendance at online events as student motivation dips and there is an increasing tiredness of this format.”
Sam Breslin, head of product, Prospects

However, the impact of digital poverty – a key issue that has come to the fore during the shutdowns – should not be overlooked. In the UK, according to OfS polling, 52% of students said their learning was impacted by slow or unreliable internet connection, with 8% ‘severely’ affected; 71% reported lack of access to a quiet study space and 18% were impacted by lack of access to a computer, laptop or tablet. Digital divides will also affect some international students studying remotely in their home countries.

University support services have been tackling the issue through hardship funds and laptop loans, but some student recruitment teams have also come up with imaginative ways to help mitigate digital inequality: one university ran a telephone campaign for widening participation of students who did not have necessary technology to access virtual open days.

While the pressures on all university staff have been immense during this period, the reduction in travel and upending of previously rigid schedules has freed up time for some.

“Cutting down travel time means the team now has more time to think about how else we can, and how better we can, engage our audience. Previously, my team spent so long travelling that there would be no real office time to focus on projects, or develop other areas of expertise, or review stuff. It was all just forever on a hamster wheel.”
Elliot Newstead, head of UK student recruitment and outreach, University of Leicester

Changes in the way that students interact with the myriad support teams connected to recruitment, such as finance and international student advisors, have also been welcomed by some students.

“The feedback we're clearly hearing from students is they like being able to get hold of us online. They like not having to traipse onto campus in order to come and meet with somebody, but they do want those options available as well. I think there will be a blended offering moving forward, but I don't think we're ever going to go back to how it was.”
Ross Porter, head of international compliance and advice, University of Greenwich


A challenge for students considering which university fits’ best – and for recruiters trying to engage with them – is how to convey the more intangible elements of a university: the culture, the ‘feel’ of it. An in-person visit to a university on an open day offers students a shortcut to that ‘gut feeling’ about a university. How can that be replicated online? One way is to encourage engagement with the current student body. The Unibuddy tech platform, which enables peer to peer connections with current students, has proved popular at the University of Leicester.


Unibuddy started life in 2017 as a peer-to-peer platform that connects prospective students one-to-one with current students at the institution they’re considering, to find out first hand about life there, meet people they might relate to and ask questions not answered by a prospectus. Peer-to-peer remains the core and Unibuddy has now added a virtual event platform to its range of products.

Unibuddy at the University of Leicester

Unibuddy went live at Leicester in March 2019. Given the timing, the service was initially aimed at offer holders and then more widely introduced at the start of the main inquiry cycle for 2020 entrants.

Peer-to-peer platform

Peer-to-peer engagement was the starting point for Leicester in selecting Unibuddy.

“Last year we won the HELOA Best Practice Award in Marketing and Communications,”

says Elliot Newstead, head of UK student recruitment and outreach at Leicester.

“In the submission I described how prospective students, when they got to the university campus, really liked meeting our students. But they weren't able to do that if they weren't able to visit the university, so it really helped fill a gap. That was a real driver for us.”

Newstead is committed to continually evolving Leicester’s use of peer-to-peer conversations and engagement throughout the application cycles.

“We've adapted some of the filters that you can use to reflect a particular point in the cycle. So, around clearing, we had prospective students able to filter students that came from clearing. When people tend to choose their accommodation, again, they can choose if they want to talk to someone that lives in halls or private housing.”

His next goal is to be “a bit more savvy” over ambassador recruitment, to reflect the target audiences better.

“I’m particularly thinking about disadvantaged backgrounds. I want to make sure our access and participation plan objectives are reflected in some of the students that prospective students can talk to. And I'd like us to be able to have some of our recent graduates go back on the platform as alumni.”

Unibuddy for virtual open days

“I'm really pleased with how far we've taken the platform,”

says Newstead. But he is looking to develop the way Leicester uses Unibuddy Live.

“We currently use it more as a Q&A within our open days but I get the sense that students don't really want to use it that way, that actually we could make a lot better use of it for having debates, discussions, almost seminar approaches, which I think would be a real step forward.”

Impact on recruitment

Newstead has seen a significant uptake in Unibuddy usage over the last 18 months or so.

“To date we've seen students from 164 countries submit more than 63,000 questions on the platform across 114 different areas of interest. As an inquiry channel, it’s more than we could have ever anticipated. It's been a fantastic uptake for us.”

The future

“I think it's now really hard to think of a world of student recruitment without a peer-to-peer element in it,”

says Newstead

“It would be a significant step backwards to now not have some form of peer-to-peer engagement that you could point students to at various points of the cycle.
“And we definitely wouldn't go back to not doing virtual events. If we were requested five times a day by five different schools to visit five different areas of the country, it would previously have been impossible. We can now do that."


Despite 2020’s recruitment holding up, there are inevitably questions around the continuing value of a British degree.

Qualification fraud is a global problem and can affect the way international students value UK degrees.

Qualification fraud will only be stamped out when employers and universities verify the credentials of all incoming graduates and students. Technology can simplify the process. Jisc’s degree verification service Prospects Hedd, UK higher education’s official system, verifies more than 150,000 students and graduates every year. It provides secure online access to 127 UK universities and as well as providing a fast and efficient service for universities, employers, screening agencies and embassies worldwide, plays a leading role in the international battle against degree fraud. Jisc also runs a degree fraud service protecting key stakeholders in HE through the identification and takedown of fake credential operations, as well as acting as a market watchdog to protect the value of a degree.

Does the value change if it is blended and what is the ‘correct’ blend in terms of both pedagogy and student experience? The desired balance may also vary between domestic and international students.

“One of the most important value drivers for international students is the experience abroad. This often trumps university name, ranking or graduate outcomes and is a key reason to justify the fees they pay.”
Jeff Williams, CEO, Enroly

A strong draw for international students is the value of the British degree and UK university experience. Can British universities offer sufficient social and cultural opportunities for international students, even under lockdown situations? A May 2020 survey on international students’ applicants attitudes and motivations found that 31% would be willing to start their course online and move to face-to-face learning at a later date, but most would prefer to defer if this meant face-to-face learning would be possible. However, more than half of all students (54%) were only willing to defer up to 12 months or less before changing their plans or exploring other study options.

While much relating to this small window of opportunity is out of an individual university’s control, one area where they can smooth the process is in enrolment and application, improving the recruitment journey and making it as involving and engaging as possible for international students along with helping them with the application paperwork. Making the process smoother will also create a commercial advantage. Technology can make a difference, as the University of Greenwich and University of South Wales have found.

CAS Shield

CAS Shield is one of a number of services offered by Enroly, which uses cloud technology to assist institutions with recruitment, admissions and compliance. CAS Shield automates much of the hitherto manual process, document scrutiny and compliance required when managing applications for CAS (Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies), without which an overseas student cannot apply for a student visa.

CAS Shield at the University of Greenwich

Enroly’s initial relationship with Greenwich was in general recruitment, managing the university’s Refer a Friend scheme before moving into proactive recruitment. Then, in 2018, it was introduced to the Greenwich International Compliance and Advice team to help with the university’s Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies (CAS) process.

CAS Shield

“We’d been through a process of centralising all of our CAS creation within the compliance teams, creating a bespoke unit and reviewing and streamlining processes,”

says Ross Porter, head of international compliance and advice.

“Previously CAS had meant huge amounts of emails, documents flying backwards and forwards between students and us, and very inefficient ways of working.”

CAS is a challenging electronic document that must be completed by all overseas students and processed, with supporting documentation, by the awarding institution before the student can apply for a student visa. Processing and ensuring compliance can be demanding for both applicants and institutions.

“Then Enroly came along with a solution that plugged quite neatly into what we were doing, enabled us to automate it, streamline it further and build significant efficiencies,”

says Porter.

Benefits for students

The integration of CAS Shield into the Greenwich application process was piloted in September 2019. It now automates bringing the student on board and screening them through the CAS stage.

“CAS Shield closely guides the students through a pre-CAS checklist to identify common mistakes before they become an issue,”

says Paul Rees, student visa compliance manager at Greenwich.

“It's an automated process. The students enjoy it much more because it's self-service, it gives them control, they can upload the documents in their own time and they haven't got someone emailing them saying, "Can I have the document now?" The student can do it as quickly or as slowly as they want.”

Benefits for Greenwich

“It's improved us from a compliance perspective and also in conversion outcomes,”

continues Rees.

“Our existing staff were able to upscale the whole CAS issue process. The system automatically flags up errors that previously staff had to do manually. It allows us to centralise all the documentation management, which basically cuts down on those emails, actual printing of paper documents, bank statements.”

Overall impact

“In our pilot,”

says Rees,

“it reduced the average time to process a direct applicant – from the point the student made contact with us to the student having the CAS issued – from 9.1 days to 2.1 days, which in efficiency terms is fantastic.”

“It actually enables more students to enrol,”

adds Chris Bustin, associate director (global), University of Greenwich.

“By having this automated system with our oversight, there have been far fewer delays and mistakes, which means a far lower attrition rate between paying a deposit and coming to enrol.”

Enroly reports that this reduction in post-acceptance attrition is an impressive 75%.

CAS Shield at the University of South Wales

Before encountering CAS Shield, University of South Wales (USW) was keeping within the UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI)’s acceptable refusal rates by using its own software-based questionnaire that gathered student information and helped students to navigate the immigration requirements, as well as manual work undertaken by email and phone.

“We were checking their supporting documentation but largely on an opt-in basis,”

says James Morris, immigration compliance manager at USW.

“A lot of those tasks are very manual, very time consuming. But with CAS Shield as a platform, all of a sudden it was much more efficient.”

Pre-CAS Shield, applicants submitted much of their information and supporting documentation by email, followed by emails back and forth to address errors and gain clarity. Now students upload everything to CAS Shield, which is able to handle routine document checking and queries automatically.

A major benefit for students is not only in convenience and simplification but in turnaround times.

“The platform provides live feedback to the applicants so they're not waiting for a response from us,”

says Morris.

“When a student uploads a document that isn't fit for purpose, they learn what’s wrong in real time so they can correct it. That reduces total turnaround time and makes us more efficient, so it allows us to process applications more swiftly. It has really improved the experience that we can give our applicants.”

And with repetitive and time consuming tasks automated, Morris’s team can focus on work that really matters – helping applicants who require human intervention.

Towards 2030

In autumn 2020 a group of university CMOs and heads of student recruitment met online to discuss the future of recruitment, plotting its path in the decade ahead to 2030. It is clear that COVID, the increasingly urgent need for upskilling and reskilling, policy contexts such as the ‘skills for jobs’ white paper on lifelong learning, all running alongside ongoing Industry 4.0 changes to how we all work and learn are going to have an impact on universities, how people access learning and the student experience.

As a result, the student recruitment journey will also need to change. By 2030 it will be more automated and personalised, flexible, and unified, supporting a culture of lifelong learning.

1. Automated and personalised

“We need to be looking at how we bring information and communicate to the students who are going to be applying to university. As a sector we do that in a really clunky way right now. They have to go to each university separately. Why can't we just do something like Something that would quickly scan my academic profile and say look, these suggestions are based on these other people like you who preferred universities like this.”
Katie Bell, CMO, UCAS

In 2030, those parts of the university journey that consist of logistics, process, compliance and information will be appropriately automated to serve students and prospective students with what they personally need, on their terms, to suit their circumstances. Only technology will be able to provide this level of personalised interaction at scale.

The use of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), coupled with universities’ own analytics, will map individuals’ journeys, identifying needs and interacting personally with them at their own milestones and decision points in the journey, providing engagement throughout that is meaningful and personal to them, and giving them a clear sense of where they are and what their options are: effectively a map and compass in an environment that may often seem alien, especially to younger prospective students.

This will also enrich the data and visibility available to universities about behaviours and decisions, and alert recruitment teams to any necessary human interventions to support students, solve problems, retain waverers or early leavers, or to prospect and recruit (or re-recruit) to different courses and modules.

As well as providing a less stressful, richer student experience, this will mean increased conversions and reduced attrition, and a significantly lower cost per conversion, compared to the present day, in the context of many more student places to fill. It will also free up universities’ human resources for more complex needs, relationships and transactions, providing human ingenuity and human contact where they are most valuable.

“Data and analytics will enable universities to understand and support students through their journey in a more personalised way, but only people can build relationships, form communities and create a sense of belonging. The ability to understand the data and use technology at scale to enable students to make meaningful personal connections will be critical for universities and the sector.”
Diego Fanara, CEO, Unibuddy

2. Flexible and accessible

“I hope in 10 years’ time that we will be putting the students really at the heart of what we do, and then they guide our behaviour. I've got this vision of a university website where the prospective student types in what they want to become, rather than what they can study. And then they would have a diagnostic conversation about all the ways they could get to that career. That would be where I'd like to get to.”
Lucy Everest, executive director – global chief operating officer, Heriot-Watt University

In 2030, the product will be more modular and flexible and so will the way in which prospective students access it – and so, therefore, will be the way in which they are recruited. With blended learning and increased online provision for international students, many more will access parts of a UK education virtually. While they may still come to the UK for an immersive experience, it may not necessarily be for the current 12-month or three-year period. More plentiful partnerships will mean an increase in university provision taught in more countries across the world.

By 2030 there will be high demand for more flexible and stackable courses with mico-accreditation as people choose to access learning at a whole variety of different points in their life. From apprenticeships to stackable credits, upskilling and reskilling, learning in the flow of work will be increasingly the norm.

Recruitment and admissions processes will need to be more flexible and more collaborative across a wide range of partner universities and organisations to enable modular learning with accreditation that leads to academic awards.

”If we were any other business we might perhaps consider not only the diversity of our product, but also the diversity of our means of engaging the customer by offering different ways they can engage with us – TNE, online, bundled learning via step on and off platform; relevant for not just international but also domestic students – how do we deliver education that fits around their circumstances not ours?
We need more differential pricing to reflect different forms of delivery – with a much clearer definition of what the added value is and how the 'full-fat' traditional mode of delivery justifies the price."
Joan Concannon, director of external relations, University of York

Access to those agents that still operate, for relationship-building purposes, will be more accessible than the current one-size-fits-all model. There will be more opportunities for students from non-traditional countries, as engagement will no longer be dependent on where a university recruitment team travels to, where they set up their in-person events and the wealth of the countries that are able to send students to visit the universities. There will be a democratisation of information and insights for students to help them feel confident about going into an institution.

3. A unified journey with continuous engagement

“When you get an Uber, you have that full end-to-end experience in your hand and that predictability is really comforting. You can always look in your pocket and know where you're at, what's next, and the ETA. That allows you to focus on where you should be focusing on, on arriving to where you're going.
It’s the same for students. They should be thinking less about remembering complicated visa requirements. That's ultimately not what this is about. It's about learning, it's about focusing on your course of study, and it's about finishing your learning equipped to do amazing things in the world.”
Maynard Inkster, CPO and co-founder, Enroly

In 2030, students will experience a streamlined, unified journey from initially researching a course to enrolment and then on to studying on or off campus or in VR. This unified journey will extend beyond the undergraduate or postgraduate years to the alumni experience and into lifelong learning, reskilling and upskilling opportunities.

Automation, AI and ML will mean that personal engagement can be continuous throughout the journey, rather than only at common milestones of the institution’s choosing, and accessible on the user’s terms, when and where they need it, whether they prefer it to be physically, human to human on campus, or virtually, at any time, on a device of their choice.

Student recruitment market map

In the market map below, we have identified some of the leading players that are set to shape the future of student recruitment and deliver an experience that is more personalised, flexible and accessible.

Specifically, the vertical axis reflects the extent to which the company provides support across the following steps in the student recruitment funnel:

  1. Awareness
  2. Interest
  3. Application and admissions
  4. Enrolment

Along the horizontal axis, we have highlighted whether each solution is focused on the recruitment of international students, domestic students, or both. Although there are a large number of companies working in this space, we have focused on a select number of innovative technology providers that deliver a high-quality experience for prospective students.

A student recruitment market map.

Student recruitment market map - text version

The quadrant above shows whether each company is high or low coverage across the recruitment funnel, and whether they have a domestic or international focus.

  • Unibuddy: high coverage, international focus
  • Info: high coverage, international focus
  • ApplyBoard: high coverage, international focus
  • Libereka: high coverage, international focus
  • Enroly: low coverage, international focus
  • Studyportals: low coverage, international focus
  • CampusLogic: low coverage, domestic focus
  • Prospects: low coverage, domestic focus
  • Purlos: high coverage, domestic focus
  • CollegeVine: high coverage, domestic focus
  • Transizion: high coverage, domestic focus

Unibuddy at Middlesex University London

Middlesex has one of the most diverse student cohorts in the UK and has been using Unibuddy since 2017 to create peer-to-peer connections between prospective students and student ambassadors.

Peer-to-peer platform

“Each of the students coming to Middlesex will have differences, given our diversity,”

says Paul Woods, director, marketing and recruitment at Middlesex.

“Some of the first things they’re considering are: will I fit in? Is this the right move for me? Will I be able to cope? Will there be individuals like me? We've used Unibuddy to profile that diversity, so that they see a relatable role model as a reassuring, supportive guide through the journey.”

Middlesex students, paid to work on the platform, make a point of turning an initial question into a conversation and trying to pre-empt what that prospective student might need next, so that a first chat becomes a relationship.

“Principally, it is reassurance at all stages,”

says Woods.

Unibuddy for virtual open days

2020 has seen Middlesex switch to primarily virtual open days, with Unibuddy Live playing a part. The experience of making the switch has been transformative.

“An on campus open day relies on someone being free on a certain Saturday morning or maybe a Wednesday night. Now, we welcome students from at least 20 to 30 countries to each virtual open day. That's worked really well in terms of reach. Likewise in the UK. It's a lot broader and more flexible.”

The ability to replay content on demand from online events has become a major feature, partly in making open day content available to those who missed the event but also in providing replays for those who were there.

“They love the live presentations but actually a fair number want to go back and look at them again,”

says Woods. Given the life-changing impact of choosing a university, he continues,

“I almost wonder how we did it in the past: choices were largely defined by 50 minutes in a lecture hall with maybe some follow-up questions with lecturers and students. Now, prospective students want to revisit, make comparisons, double check they heard things correctly and then re-engage with us to ask us very targeted questions in different ways.”

Impact on recruitment

“The reassurance throughout the journey really positively impacts the individuals,”

says Woods.

“We saw the conversion rate of applicants increase in the very first year we launched. When we looked at those who accepted us and used Unibuddy, the proportion was phenomenally higher than students who'd had other types of engagement with us. It shows the depth and therefore the real impact of that engagement.”

The future

The key to the future is retaining a blend of physical and online.

“Making sure we don't just switch back to physical events will be really essential. And I think the Unibuddy platform plays a key role in that.”

This type of platform could also help in the event that PQA comes into play, and can help to improve direct access to students and events for prospective students.

The benefits are wide-ranging. Student recruitment teams have expanded their reach and flexibility by not having to be present in person while also reducing their travel time. The presentations that would have been given in schools and at fairs are now online resources, accessible on demand to schools and prospective students at a time that suits them, and available for repeat playing as they consider their options.

From 2020 to 2030

“The creation of our tomorrows doesn't have to sit with a handful of people at the top of the organisation. The more we can empower others and enable others to come forward with their ideas and suggestions throughout the organisation and external organisations the better. We're more likely to build a more collaborative and sustainable future.”
Katie Bell, CMO, UCAS

Universities faced a massive reset in 2020. In some respects they were forced to approach their core business from a startup perspective: what exactly is the product now, what is its value and what is the relationship between the components of product, market, value and communication that will create success?

If universities are to realise the vision of more personalised, flexible and end-to-end student recruitment experience in 2030, and to do so within the wider context of the uncertainty outlined in part one of this long read, then the agility, the flexible, experimental model experienced in 2020 must be maintained in a sustainable way. In fact, approaches very similar to those adopted by startups could be considered.

It is apparent that technology will continue to play a significant part in the marketing and recruitment agendas of higher education.

The reset in 2020 was a button on the existing infrastructure for most HEIs. The challenge will be to take a holistic look at the opportunities and be visionary in the ambition for seamless student journeys, including recruitment and admissions as well as teaching and learning.

The challenge will be to take a holistic look at the opportunities and be visionary in the ambition for seamless student journeys, including recruitment and admissions as well as teaching and learning.

However, investment will remain an issue, and CFOs should be planning for a digital mortgage to buy into the technologies required to ensure sustainability and growth in their institutions. We should also be asking technology providers to be more enabling and collaborative with their information and advice, so as to ensure that HEIs are investing in technological infrastructure that is capable of being integrated and evolved over time into other systems.

It is also foreseeable that we will have more co-creating of technologies between edtech startups and universities: both working towards common goals but from different platforms.

Other resources in the form of time and investment in people need to be made available in order to succeed. Without investment in upskilling our own people, we cannot succeed. It is clear that the 'reset in 2020' was done quickly and relatively successfully. However, longer-term success will require a longer-term people investment strategy too, as the technological infrastructures are being developed and introduced. On top of this, the people are the future of HEIs, and should be heard: they are the practitioners at the dynamic front end, where the business really matters – whether academics or professional services – and their experiences and ideas, in conjunction with the edtech solutions, will ultimately lead the sector to sustainable success.

Change is the new norm, and there will not be a solution for life. Evolution and renovation will be key factors of the HEIs investment programme, and those who are both closely connected and listening to their learners and their staff, as well as those of solution providers, will be those who are able to develop a strong and sustainable recruitment and teaching and learning frameworks.

Given the forecast growth in demographic and continuing demand from overseas, tech developments will enable universities to expand capacity in a market that is clearly growing without having to invest too heavily in bricks and mortar. Jisc and Emerge are producing a paper of revenue diversification, due March 2021, which will explore the potential and challenges in greater depth.


Emerge Education and Jisc would like to thank all the contributors to this long read for their time and expert insight. In particular, we would like to thank Katie Bell and everyone who so kindly spared the time to be interviewed for a case study during an exceptionally busy time for all involved in higher education. Thank you.

  • Andy Blair, director of communications and external relations, University of Winchester
  • Chris Bustin, associate director (global), University of Greenwich
  • Diego Fanara, CEO, Unibuddy
  • Elliot Newstead, head of UK student recruitment and outreach, University of Leicester
  • Gavin Brooks, provost and DVC at Buckingham New University
  • Gareth Topp, head of internationalisation, Brighton University
  • James Morris, immigration compliance manager, University of South Wales
  • Nic Newman, Emerge Education
  • Jackie Labbe, pro-vice-chancellor (Academic), De Montfort University
  • James Seymour, director of communications, marketing and student recruitment, University of Gloucestershire
  • Jeff Williams, CEO, Enroly
  • Jonathan Tinnacher, CCO, Unibuddy
  • Joan Concannon, director of external relations, University of York
  • Katie Danaher, chief of staff, Aula
  • Lucy Everest, global chief operating officer, Heriot-Watt University
  • Maynard Inkster, CPO and co-founder, Enroly
  • Paul Rees, student visa compliance manager, University of Greenwich
  • Rose Sellam-Leava, product manager, edtech, Jisc
  • Ross Porter, head of international compliance and advice, University of Greenwich
  • Sam Breslin, head of product, Prospects
  • Shinaz Navas, senior associate, Emerge Education
  • Stephen Dudderidge, registrar and secretary, Brighton University
  • Sue Attewell, head of edtech, Jisc

Thank you to report sponsors Enroly and Unibuddy.

Our project partners

  • emerge education logo