How many bars are there in town? Is the accommodation close enough to stumble out of bed at 8:50 for a 9am lecture? Is there a Domino’s that stays open until 5am?
What is it that students want to know? And what is it that universities should be telling them?
Here to learn
Though some may see it as a bit of a party, (“yeah, you go to lectures, but you basically just go out and drink for 3 years, right?”) university is ultimately a chance to learn, prepare for the future, and it is, actually, a lot of work.
It is unsurprising then, that teaching is what potential students want to know about. In the 2019 International Student Survey, high-quality teaching was the deciding factor for choosing a university for 57% of the prospective students. At school, when everyone was deciding what they wanted to study, we’d check where our university ranked on the Good University Guide for that subject. That seemed a good starting point.
Students want to know the way the course is going to be delivered. I hold a degree in Art History from the University of Nottingham, so I’d be considering postgrad courses and I want to know the course structure, how many modules I can choose from, how many lectures vs seminars, is it 80% exam or mostly coursework based? Teaching methods, assessment style and course content are, no doubt, key deciding factors.
However, I think that potential students would also like to hear stories that connect on an emotional level. When I made my choice to go to Nottingham, it was the overall atmosphere that made me sure of my decision. So I think publicising stories that showcase the character of a university - the staff, the students, the impact on your future, the issues it values - is a worthwhile venture.
I had super enthusiastic lecturers. They all loved the subjects they taught and each had great personality. I ended up having the same three or four lecturers for my non-compulsory modules, due in part to my interests aligning with their research, but also due to how much I enjoyed their teaching.
I had a fair few ‘Welcome to Art History’ talks, and the Nottingham presentation was by far the most enjoyable. It was the clincher for several of us. I would like to read about the great staff universities were boasting, especially now that I’ve experienced the difference between engaging lecturers and not-so-engaging lecturers. What are they researching? Tell me about the books they’ve published. Words from the staff themselves would give students a chance to taste some of that enthusiasm before entering the lecture theatre.
Testimonials from students are always valuable. A personal experience can really resonate with a potential applicant. If I’m researching postgraduate courses and I come across an article about an Art History graduate going back to university for their masters after having some time away from studying, I’m going to connect to that. I’m going to look up the university they went to, the course they took, and the modules they enjoyed. It’s also nice to hear about the overall experience - the city, the socialising, the accommodation - through a student voice.
Last year’s survey showed that 32% of international students looked for institutions with employer connections and career services. With more redundancies, business losses and increased competition for jobs, I imagine this figure is only going to go up. Universities should be showing off any and all links to businesses and employers that they have. Show me an article about how many students have gone on to work at that company thanks to your work placement year and that will be the first course I look up.
I didn’t have a placement year for my course. I’m not sure whether there was less emphasis put on them then, or whether I was so focused on studying (I would have happily stayed in academia forever) that I thought the degree was the sole goal. The lesson at school was pretty clear - you study hard, you get a good degree, it’ll get you a great job. Whilst at university, I did some volunteering and sat on committees to try and get those extra ‘things for your CV’, but I didn’t consider how much value a placement year would be when considering my course choice.
Only when I started applying for jobs did I see how high previous experience was on the requirement list. I was just out of university, how could I already have experience? Obviously this is the case for a large amount of graduates, so work experience prior to graduating is a great selling point for any institution.
I’m once again in the process of applying for jobs (thank you, Covid) and the weight given to previous experience is even more striking. You fill out your application, write your cover letter, meet every person specification, every job descriptor, and then as you go to submit there’s a company question you have to answer first. “How many year’s *insert industry* experience do you have?” Well, you’ve just come out of university; whether you’re an undergraduate or a postgraduate, you’re going into something new. You know as soon as you put a “0” in that box your application is going to the bottom of the pile. Probably won’t even get to the pile. What’s more frustrating is that the job is being presented to you as ‘perfect for graduates’, ‘this could be your first job or you’re making a career change’, ‘experience preferred but not required - we’re looking for the right attributes and raw materials’.
The company affiliations or placement programmes a course offers could be what gets you in the door, gets you to the top of the application pile. Students want to read about the graduates who have succeeded thanks to those connections and understand how advantageous they can be.
As a society, we are becoming increasingly aware of the deep-rooted, global, social and environmental issues that need attention and long-term effective action. Sustainability and eco-friendly initiatives are more important than ever - David Attenborough has taken to Instagram now, that’s how serious it’s gotten. Articles outlining universities’ commitment to sustainability would be of great interest to potential students, for some it could be a determining factor in deciding where to apply. Students will want to know that Bristol is aiming to become carbon-neutral by 2030, which universities are ranked as the greenest in the UK (yes, Nottingham is on the list) and what environmental campaigns they’re implementing.
Inclusivity and diversity is a big issue for academic institutions and change is long over-due. Just 19% of the world's top 200 universities have a female leader and fewer than 1% of professors at UK universities are Black. This is, frankly, embarrassing. I want to hear what universities are doing to put this right, what initiatives are being put in place and about the people being hired to make these changes. The University of Nottingham (I promise this is the last time I’ll mention my alma mater) has at it’s head President and Vice-Chancellor Shearer West and, as of this year, Chancellor Baroness Lola Young of Hornsey OBE. I have no doubt that young advocates of social change would like to read about women running universities and a Black woman being appointed Chancellor. I want to hear about institutions that have a Chancellor that campaigns against modern slavery, or that have women in leadership, or have a business school that has 70% of students from minority backgrounds (out soon - season two of the BlueSky Education Thinking podcast where we interview Sunitha Narendran, Director of Roehampton Business School). Those are the institutions that are starting to make positive change and those are the ones I would want to attend.
I think students will connect to the universities that show what they are doing to create a better future, both for their students and for society.
Author: Chloë Velounias, currently on work experience with BlueSky Education