The UK higher education environment has been at the forefront of academia and students’ choice since, well, the beginning of modern time. Some of the most prestigious universities in the world are based in the UK, while in more recent years, UK universities have consistently been highly placed in international rankings taking into consideration a wide range of criteria.
And it’s not just that – but some of the most prestigious international public figures have benefited from the UK education system. Alumni all over the world are flying our educational banner, convincing prospective students to come to the UK.
However, despite the stellar reputation and excellent quality of education, UK universities have seen a fall in student numbers. In the 2013-2014 academic year, the number of UK- and EU-domiciled undergraduate entrants to higher education institutions in England decreased by 21.7% compared to the 2010 – 2011 academic year. Is society no longer interested in higher education as much as it used to? Does the declining young population have anything to do with this fall in numbers? Are there new competitors in the educational arena who are more attractive to some?
So what's the issue?
The long-term outlook for higher education in the UK in terms of demand is positive, and it is likely to remain strong, although in the short term it might be affected by demographics. This, however, could be counteracted by an increase in the overall global demand for UK higher education, which puts international students at the forefront of UK universities’ continued success. The one question we need to answer is how to remain competitive in this global market.
International students are highly desirable for any university, as well as for the UK economy overall – UK higher education has been, for quite some time, one of the major exports for the UK. In 2009, non-UK students have brought in around £7.9 billion, including tuition fees and spending. This figure has the potential to grow to £16.9 billion by 2025.
The good news is that UK universities are currently at the forefront in terms of number of international students attracted. They enjoy such a good position mainly because their excellent reputation for education and research, their historical trade and political links, the popularity of English language study and culture and the post-study employment prospects.
But if that’s the case, why did the number of both UK- and EU-domiciled undergraduate entrants decrease by 21.7%? The answer lies within the major drop in part-time entrants over that period – a whopping 47.8% decrease. This is a sure sign that those potential part-time students have either elected to not continue their education or found better alternatives in the form of online platforms.
According to an article published in The Economist in June 2014, universities face a new competitor in the form of massive open online courses, or MOOCs. These digitally-delivered courses, which teach students via the web or tablet apps, have big advantages over their established rivals. Online courses dramatically lower the price of learning and widen access to it, by removing the need for students to be taught at set times or places. The low cost of providing courses means they can be sold cheaply, or even given away. Universities still have some aces up their sleeves, though – being able to offer a well-rounded experience in the form of teaching students how to debate, present themselves and make contacts, not to mention the coveted degree. So while MOOCs won’t replace universities anytime soon, it is likely that they will have an impact on the numbers of students enrolled in universities. The same article proposes that a solution for universities might be to combine the two learning methods – that is, for universities to increase their adoption rate in terms of online learning platforms, as well as constantly improve on the technology being used.
What can be done?
It is clear that the single most important reason why universities are sometimes failing to attract students is technology – the online learning platforms and applications universities offer are no longer enough for prospective students, especially with the surge of MOOCs.
And it’s not just about part-time students, or international students or, indeed, prospective students. One of the core audiences for any university is its current body of students. And their expectations are constantly growing.
According to a survey conducted this year amongst some 2,500 UK and US students, 75% of students expect to be able to access university software for their course anytime, anywhere, while 91% expect their university to have an App Store. As many as 73% of them agree that technology’s impact on a student’s success is important or very important, and almost half of them access university software on a daily basis.
In other words, the demand for university-specific apps and software is there. Moreover, in the current landscape the technology provided by universities is no longer a good-to-have for students, but a requirement. Not making appropriate use of technology in the academic environment could very well be the deciding factor between good and not so good universities. However, having the best technology, the most useful or innovative apps might be the deciding factor between a good educational experience and an amazing one – thus posing an immense opportunity for those universities which want to become or remain top picks for the best students the world over.
Be it apps which allow students to submit their papers or view their exams results via their smartphone, a campus map, reminders for their timetable or exams, an alumni social network, a mobile library catalogue or a calendar for campus events, you need to be thinking about what your students want. Offering them these benefits will increase their loyalty and the chance of them continuing their academic career with your university, as well as their availability as an ambassador on behalf of their alma mater. In a society where word of mouth and peer recommendations are the number one deciding factor for purchasing decisions, would you not benefit from as many advocates as possible? However, not all universities have the exact same needs. Which is why we can’t recommend a one-size-fits-all solution. What works for Warwick University, LSE or University of Nottingham might not work for anybody else. The one way you can maximise the impact of technology for your university is deciding what your students and staff could benefit from and having a bespoke solution built. This approach has the added benefit of giving you that edge and exclusivity that no other university has, allowing you to maintain your competitiveness and desirability in both the local and global academic environment.