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Update on student recruitment

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The Vice-Chancellor spoke to colleagues at the end of April as part of his summer briefings. He outlined the challenges we face as an institution and what steps we are taking to respond to or deal with these challenges. Questions at the session covered five broad themes – furloughingplans for phased returnprocess for considering financial challengesstudent recruitment and COVID-19’s impact on the next academic year.

In the fourth of the five updates covering the questions asked, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Academic Planning & Resources) Mark Fellowes provides an update on student recruitment for the next academic year.

Like many of you, I was a participant in some of Robert’s summer briefings. Listening in to my University Executive Board colleagues speak and the questions you asked them, it was clear to me that almost everyone is focused on how we can respond effectively to the challenges posed to our institution by COVID-19.

Among the questions and suggestions were:

  • Could we consider reduced fees to attract students?
  • How can we try to ensure that international students remain interested in our courses?
  • Could we boost our PGT recruitment encouraging our own UG students to stay at Reading?
  • Could we work with local schools to ask their school leavers to consider coming locally to university?
  • Is there anything we can do beyond qualification programmes to raise revenue?  

The problems our University is facing aren’t unique to us. Universities across the UK face similar challenges.

Given the government announcement that there will be a temporary cap on how many students an individual university can recruit, our immediate priority is strong student recruitment for the 2020-21 academic year. As Robert said in his message, this will provide us a clear sense of our student fee income for the next three years. We shouldn’t be under any illusions that the cap will provide a deep safety net, as those caps are likely to still lead to substantial movement in numbers, particularly as the cap also includes numbers from EU applicants and a 5% increase in some institutions will have to be balanced elsewhere.

While I understand the appeal of reducing fees to boost recruitment, it is evident that this will not be considered acceptable. The government letter sent earlier last week gave a clear statement that universities should be charging normal fees for the coming academic year.

Each student is different as are their expectations from university education. Colleagues in Schools are working closely with our Global Recruitment and Admissions (GRA) team in collaboration with Marketing, Communication and Engagement (MCE) on a range of initiatives to engage with applicants while we are under social distancing rules. These include virtual alternatives to on-campus events such as Open Days, more opportunities for personalised and 1-to-1 engagement between staff, current students and  offer holders on our Unibuddy platform, resources and support for schools and colleges to share, and supporting admissions for late applicants along with a focus on the vital delivery of a successful Confirmation and Clearing processes.

In our key international markets, we are offering regular updates, webinars and agent-led virtual fairs to keep prospective students informed.

We are fortunate to have a campus that has been voted one of Britain’s greenest spaces for nine years in a row. At a time when social distancing may continue to be the norm for the foreseeable future, it is also an important recruitment tool. Our distinctive woodland walks, conservation meadows and the beautiful Harris Gardens provide us a distinctive edge. While prospective students may not be able to visit us, we are inviting them to experience the campus through a virtual tour.

Showing empathy for all our future students is tremendously important, especially at this time. Since the outbreak of COVID-19 much of our work has been focussed on identifying the most significant challenges that our applicants may be facing and looking to offer solutions. For example, the suspension of English language IELTS testing has been a key concern and barrier to recruitment among prospective students in China. We are exploring alternative English Language Testing which would be acceptable to UK Visa and Immigration and can be delivered or supported by our ISLI colleagues. It is entirely possible that the current restrictions (or an eased version of these) will create a preference to study/remain closer to home. We have a number of progression partnerships in place that could help us recruit from a local pool of prospective applicants. In addition, we are still working closely with schools and colleges, including those local to Reading, to remotely provide the Information, Advice and Guidance sessions we would otherwise have delivered as in-person events. 

I have no doubt that the competition for students will be intense. We do not as yet know when our campus will be fully operational or how our students will experience their learning in the autumn although most likely blend of online and face-to-face learning. There is also the challenge of not knowing if we will be able to resume our normal face-to-face, on campus activities later in the year, meaning that some students looking at 2021 entry could experience their whole pre-application journey virtually!  

However, I am truly proud of how colleagues in Schools and Functions have adapted to the restrictions imposed on us by COVID-19 and the innovative approaches they continue to take to managing student recruitment. They continue to make a strong case for the value of education and experience we offer – and this will help us stand out in such uncertain times.

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