HE admissions - does size matter?

By Dan Shaffer   By Dan Shaffer   - Monday 01 October 2018

The recruitment and admission of higher education students continues to be ever more sophisticated, whilst the regulatory framework surrounding it grows increasingly complex. Indeed, the very nature of marketised competition has brought further legislation into the realm of admissions to add to existing compliance requirements. The expertise and resource demands for managing an effective recruitment and admission campaign are high, so it is little wonder admissions staff in smaller, specialist and alternative providers have told me their biggest challenge is their size.

The impact of resources

There are operational advantages of being a large university that many alternative providers cannot match, particularly in terms of the volume and diversity of resources to expend across outreach, recruitment and admissions, backed-up by extensive experience of working within the regulatory framework. This should give such institutions immense strength in the three key variables influencing the impact of resource utilisation: predictability; reliability; and flexibility. However, I have seen many universities make poor use of their finances, time, systems, people and data, making their admissions less predictable, less reliable and less flexible. Often it is their very size, and the structures built up to administer a large operation, that hampers their effective operation. So, it is not simply a case of how many resources you have at your disposal, but how well you use them.

Avoid the technology traps

Technology can be an efficient asset for joining-up your recruitment and admissions activity, but only if applied wisely. I visited a university that had spent a six-figure sum on a new CRM system that went unused for two years. Their mistake was that they were convinced a large capital expenditure would solve all their problems, but they hadn’t planned out how. They therefore hadn’t set up the infrastructure to develop the system, hadn’t agreed what to prioritise and quickly bred disillusionment amongst staff who had expected a solution to all ‘their’ problems. In thinking new technology would deal with everything, they ended up with a cost that dealt with nothing. If you’re looking at new systems, or wanting to get more out of your existing ones, avoid these three traps:

1. Don’t plan on it being a cost-saving exercise

The primary purpose of admissions is not to cost as little as possible. It’s not even to get enough applicants to the point of enrolment to justify the costs. It should be about identifying, nurturing and supporting future students with the potential to succeed throughout the duration of their chosen course and beyond. Start from the mindset of technology as an investment in successful engagement with potential students and you’ll have a common goal to lead the design, development and evaluation of your systems, and a common measure for deciding if they are fit-for-purpose. If it saves you money in the long-term, then that’s an added bonus.

2. Don’t believe it’s the solution to your problems 

Only thinking of the problems in your current admissions service creates a very narrow, fragmented view. It makes it more likely those involved will fixate on the symptoms, rather than the cause, and miss new opportunities. Instead, agree what you want out of your engagement with potential students and then look at technology as part of a holistic package of tools for achieving those aims. That should not only avoid your systems feeling like separate parts of your recruitment and admissions but should identify new approaches that feel joined-up up for both staff and applicants. Embedding change within the wider context of your overall aims will deal with problems without being led by them.

3. Don’t assume one size fits all

It’s tempting when designing admissions systems to build it around a ‘typical’ applicant. That will probably end up suiting most of your current applicants but may prove inconvenient or inaccessible for a small number and less likely to meet the expectations of future applicants. If you’re keen to widen participation, you may inadvertently be building barriers for such new prospects. Ensure the design of new systems is as open as possible by impact assessing them (this doesn’t have to be costly or long). When you find adjustments for certain groups, including disabled and long-distance applicants, you can consider applying them to others, making the application experience better for all. 

A size advantage

If you look at your systems as a joined-up, inclusive investment in engagement, then you can begin to think more wisely about how effective your whole recruitment and admissions process is in shaping potential students’ preparation, engagement and attitudes towards studying with you. In that respect, being smaller may be an advantage you can exploit to develop a more genuine bond with applicants as individuals, not just numbers in the system. A strong ‘psychological contract’ with an applicant is worth far more than the legal ‘consumer contract’ and not only encourages entry to your institution but counters the main causes of early drop-out and motivates retention.

Dan Shaffer was previously Head of Professionalism in Admissions for the Supporting Professionalism in Admissions (SPA) programme where he developed their good practice guidance on areas of the applicant experience, equality and planning, and managing admissions. Dan is currently an independent consultant on fair admissions.