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Higher education webinar on admissions

Each year the Higher Education sector faces new challenges when admitting students; increased expectations from students for a seamless digital first experience, changing student behaviours, delayed decision making, and rapid shifts in technology.

This year is once again expected to be challenging for universities as A-level exams are cancelled requiring a new approach to admitting students, while managing the significant growth in the number of student applications.

The most successful universities will be those whose operations are fully digitised and responsive to meet student demand and with 2021 Clearing approaching in a few months, we will be sharing our thoughts on how you can prepare.

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Higher Education Disrupted: The future of Admissions

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Good morning everyone. Thank you for joining us today to talk about the Future of Admissions for the Higher Education sector. My name is Cat McCusker and I am the Education Lead at PwC. We have around 100 people joining us today from across the world and we thank you so much for attending. We have a fantastic group of speakers today and we thank them very much for their time and for sharing their insights with us. Kim Eccleston is the Customer Adoption Lead at UCAS. Kathryn Blyth is the Academic Registrar and Director of Student Administration at the Australian Catholic University and our own Andrea Turley is our Education SME from PwC.

In these unprecedented times, we are all grappling with how to move forward after the impacts of COVID-19 and what this means for the sector across the medium and long term. Whilst we focus our energy on the release from lock down and the upcoming September intake, we really need to consider what impacts COVID-19 has had globally, what trends are emerging and what this means for the future. Student recruitment has been a key focus of the sector due to the challenges of last year’s intakes, and again we see the sector grappling with how to admit students for this September. Admissions has long been a hot topic for the sector for a number of years. There has been much public debate about unconditional offers, a focus on Fair Admissions, and in 2020 we again saw the discussion of a move to post-qualification admissions. As many of you joining us will be aware, the government released a consultation on post-qualification admissions in January 2021 with feedback closing shortly. This has been a topic for the sector for a number of years, and will no doubt be another focus for us in 2021 and beyond.

In addition to managing the operation and policy impacts for Admissions we are also seeing a change in the profile of students choosing Higher Education, and the education offer that is now available for students. The traditional September start date for university study is changing - we have recently seen exponential growth in apprenticeships, the introduction of multiple entry points, and in some countries rolling entry - start when you like. The profile of students is changing as we see more non-traditional audiences engaging in university study. What does this mean for Admissions in the sector?

Students are expecting an admissions experience similar to that of other brands, digital, seamless, efficient, whilst making them feel part of the university community. Today we are going to discuss these challenges and more, and how universities can respond, but we also want to focus on the opportunities for the future. What does the future of admissions look like?

We are really keen to get you involved in today’s discussion and would encourage you to ask questions using the Q&A function located on the bottom right corner of your screen. We will take a few questions after each speaker, and leave time for more Q&A at the end of the session. We will be presenting on social media and would encourage you to do the same using the #PwCHEDisrupted hashtag. We will be recording today’s session and will be shared with you post event.

So a few tips on Webex even though we are very familiar with it now after the last 15 months. But as a reminder for best viewing it is advised to limit the number of devices streaming at your location, be that at home or in the office. In terms of housekeeping, we would normally advise of fire alarms and turning off mobile phones, but in the case of the webinar in the off chance we do lose connection at any point in time and the webinar disconnects, please dial back in using the same link and we will ensure we get back up and running.

I am pleased to introduce Kim Eccleston as our first speaker. Kim is the Customer Adoption Lead at UCAS, appointed in December 2019. Prior to joining UCAS Kim held the role of Head of Admissions and Assistant Director Student Recruitment, Admission and Outreach Service at the University of Warwick. Kim has previously undertaken the role of Chair of the UCAS Undergraduate Advisory Group, and completed a term of membership of the Change Steering Group and UCAS Council in summer 2019. Kim is going to speak to us today about the challenges for Admissions in 2021, the changing nature of Admissions and what this means for the future. Kim, thank you so much for joining us today. I’ll now handover to you


Thank you very much Cat. It’s great to be here this morning. Always happy to talk admissions to anybody who has an interest and is willing to listen. As Cat said, I am Customer Adoption Lead here at UCAS which is one of those slightly odd job titles which I'm sure you're very familiar with, which doesn't give a lot away - it doesn’t say very much about what I do. Having come from the sector and spent a lot of time working in university admissions, outreach and a little bit of time in governance as well. My role really is a kind of bridge between what we do as a centralised service in the UK and what that means on the ground for universities, for colleges and for customers that they serve, the students that come through. So making sure that we understand that externally need but also externally everybody sorts of understands what we are developing, why we developing and how to get the most from it. My focus is very much on new things that emerge; new products, new services, new issues and for us reform is absolutely in that space of new things that could significantly change, disrupt, make us rethink what we do and how we do it.

So unsurprisingly with that said I am going to take you through this session with a bit of a lens on the kind of reform question as Cat said. The consultation from the Department for Education was released back in January and closes this Thursday. So it’s very much been in the forefront of our minds over the past few months. I am going to step you through the questions that have come up through as we gone through the process; the themes that have emerged and where we are looking to try to answer some of the questions, be that what we have seen in the past year or so. Or what we can see coming forward upon the horizon. So we have done a bit of engagement on the form as you might expect as the centralised admissions service. And as we have gone through this process it's fair to say there are three questions that come up time and time again whoever it is we speak to whether it is universities or colleges. Whether it is teachers or advisors. Whether it is stakeholders, charities or external bodies. We always sort of hear the same 3 questions over and over. I am going to start by sharing these with you. The first question that we hear over and over again is what are we trying to solve?

What is the problem we are trying to fix with reform? And that comes from two perspectives really. The first is a sense check - is the risk worth the reward? If we have reform in the UK admissions, it is going to be significantly upheaval to deliver so is that upheaval going to be worth it? Are we going to see positive change at the end of it? The second reason we hear that question is just the simple sort of point if we are going to get the right answer we really need to be confident that we ask the right question in the first place and we are not ploughing on to potentially fix something really problematic in the first place.

So what are we trying to solve? Well if we dig into the Department for Education consultation itself, there are probably three key challenges that are pulled out there. The first is the inaccuracy of predictive grades and the risk that leaves certain students to undermatch. So they sell themselves short in the process and do not apply to the sort of courses/institutions they might have had they gone to get higher grades than they expected. This can cause problems right down the line if potentially the sort of course, sort of job etc. So that is identified as one issue.

As Cat said unconditional offers is another key issue that the DfE pulled out for us in the consultation and there is a wide variety of views it is fair to say on unconditional offers for those who are not qualified. For those who say it is terrible, it is marketisation, precious selling, it is trying to force students to make decisions that they do not want to make and right through to the other end of the spectrum where we hear that view that this is about taking the pressure off. This is about enabling students to focus on their studies, not stress about the admissions process. And fair to say everything from those two points is represented in terms of the feedback. From the DfE’s perspective, this is something they do not want happening. They cite OFS research that suggests that this does have an impact on attainment and limits attainment because students are not motivated to chase the grades they might need to get and it is something they want to see stopping.

And the final thing the DfE pulled out of the consultation is the general sense that the process itself isn't as simple as it should be. The complexity of the system is going to give a competitive edge to those who know the process best. So if you are very experienced, have a family background of those who have been through the process or you have access to an advisor/teacher who has a long history of supporting students through it, you probably will get a better outcome than somebody who doesn't have that experience or background.

So that's what we are told is the problem but for many that is not seen as a compelling problem. Not least there is a sense that those challenges are not about the admissions process. Those challenges are about the market conditions and the marketisation of HE admissions itself. So the reason we see this challenge with predicted grades and the mismatch between grades people accept and where they are predicted, it simply reflects the uncertainty of the market. Unconditional offers reflect the uncertainty of the market and actually if we see market conditions change, then we will see those challenges change with it. So why go through the process of revolutionising the whole system, when actually if we sit tight, we will see some of these practices drop off naturally.

But it is interesting we hear that feedback. From my perspective, yes market conditions are likely to change but the landscape more broadly is changing as well. And probably it is always right to ask if the system is the right system for now, the right system for 5 years time, 10 years time. So if we look at the numbers - we have been forecasting the population. I am sure many of you are familiar with the fact that in the UK, we have had a demographic dip and we have just gone through the bottom of that demographic dip and now we are on an upturn again. Now forecasting is suggesting to us we will reach a million applicants in the system by 2025, which is not an insignificant number. It is a big step change from where we are now. So that in itself says to us that there is probably going to be some sort of load issue. How do you just deal with that number of applications coming through your offices? I certainly have been in the position where I have had the pressure of budgets, resource, getting through the work, getting it done in a timely, robust manner and getting a compliant manner with the different regulations that the admissions team have to hit. So that in itself suggests we do need to take a keen look and we are collectively delivering an efficient and fit for purpose system.

But it is not just necessarily about the numbers themselves and perhaps for some people that might be welcoming in a sense. The numbers game becomes a little bit easier. That might be true but we still need to make sure we get the right students on the right courses and we optimise those outcomes for students and for Higher Education Providers alike. On that theme, we should be absolutely concerned about access as we see these numbers growing. Now it is not to say that widening participation and access has been sitting idle for the past few years - it absolutely hasn't and we are seeing record numbers in whichever group you want to look at. We are seeing record numbers of students entering HE which is a huge positive and a huge credit to the credit. Nonetheless, the progress is showing signs of slowing down. For example, the MEM (Multiple Equality Measure) which brings together a range of factors to provide a single metric of advantage or disadvantage. That equality gap by using our MEM measure has been narrowing by an average of about 1.1% year on year since 2015. So it is narrowing but the four years before then, it was narrowing by an average of 4.4% so we see that squeeze and slowdown. Again, that alone is something that should be giving us pause and making us just question are we continuing to do the right thing? Do we need to change tack? But you put those two points together, the growth and numbers, plus the slowdown of the access agenda and the warning signs are there and are clear for us to see. We know, for example, that disadvantaged and attainment are linked. If you look at the postcode data, of those in quintile 1 (the most disadvantage) 13.4% got CCC or below in their A-levels last year. That is double the amount for the most advantaged quintile. So if we imagine that places are allocated on the basis of attainment, we know that the numbers are growing. We know there is this link between attainment and disadvantage. It doesn’t paint a rosy future for those who are trying to look after access students and make sure they are progressing in a fair and appropriate way.

We also need to make sure, that aside, that the system remains fit for purpose, it is expressed from the outset, there is one type of course, there is one type of student, there is one type of start date, one mode of delivery. That is fast becoming outdated. Yet, we work with a model that is largely prejudicated on that set of assumptions. So we need to pull that apart and make sure it is serving all of those different purposes and just aside from the reform question very briefly, I did want to flag a report we recently published called Where Next? which looked at the decision making processes of students. A lot of that insight is probably things you might be familiar with; they start to think about this early, if they are not thinking early enough, doors becoming inadvertently closed. Really interesting for us within that piece of work is that the number of students who at the point of application are seriously considering apprenticeship is really significant - 28% of all applicants at the point of application are genuinely thinking about apprenticeships as a route forward. Despite that demand - the information, the advice, the understanding of apprenticeships within the sector is relatively low so a third of the students we spoke to were not getting any advice from their schools about apprenticeships. We see that parents equally are influential as the students when looking post 16 choices. Parents don't realise that degree apprenticeships result in a degree so that advice/support isn't there. So I just take that side-step to make the point that if we are going to talk about admissions, we are going to have to talk about vocation and alternative routes. And if we are going to talk about reform, we have to talk about vocation and alternative routes. So all of that considered, there is a lot that points us to change and reform and to progress.

The second question we are asked repeatedly is that has anyone looked at the global models? What an idea that would be? Yes, quite a few people have looked at those global models. What is really interesting for us, I do not want to say too much because I am sure Kathryn will share some helpful insights in how things are working in Australia. That question tends to come with a genuine belief that PQA is the global norm, that every other country does all of this after exams are rewarded and the UK is this strange outlier. But when you look at those global models, that is not really the truth. There is a sliding scale of where these things happen but the idea that everybody does everything after exams doesn't really hold up to scrutiny. Interestingly, what we do see where that model is in place, is that the rest of the education system around admissions is very very different from what we have in the UK. So if you take China as an example, students going to HE take a single comparable exam - very different from the UK where we have such a huge range of level 3 qualifications. There are a lot of differentiations in the grades in those systems, so it is not just having hundreds students having AAA or BBB similar grade profiles. It is much easier to make those distinctions between candidates. The final thing that is quite different in some of the other countries you might look to is the cultural expectations of what might happen when you get to university. Noting that the session is looking at responsible growth, we expect students to succeed in HE in the UK or perhaps looking at it in another way, we expect we will need to ensure that students succeed. In other countries, that is not necessarily the same viewpoint and people can be more comfortable than other countries with the idea that students rejoin university. And if it doesn't work out after a term, semester or a year, that is ok. That is really odd from the cultural viewpoint in this country so those comparisons tell us you can't just take the admissions process out and put another one in. You have to look at the bigger picture if you are going to adopt another model.

The final question people ask us is what do students want which is probably the most interesting one for me. We did a couple pieces of work on this - we partnered with The Student Room which is an online forum. Really short sharp question - which model of reform would you like to see? 52% of respondents to that said they wanted that pure strict PQA everything happening in the summer. Only around 20% wanted to see the current model continue. We then built on that work with an organisation called YouthSight to do some surveying. That allowed us to step students through the implications of the different models and that painted a really different picture. So when you started to say ‘what model would you like?’, ‘do you want more time to think about options?’, ‘do you want universities to have more time to think about you?’, ‘do you want access to support?’, we started to see different answers come through with the majority saying actually they wanted to have their applications completed while they were still in school or college.

So for me, the key takeaway from that's what's missing here is transparency and students have really strong viewpoints because they don't know what really happens in admissions. They don't know what is happening, don't know why it is happening, they don't know the things that happen are sensibly for their benefit, they are not seeing that or hearing it. So they make some sharp judgments about what they see is happening and that can be quite, if you are a policy maker, that 52% is really convincing and points towards some work for all of us to make sure we are sharing what we are doing and telling that story really clearly and we are really open with students. That takes us to, we would accept the strict PQA is not a quick fix and not going to take us to the right place. We do think there is space for improvement and definitely space to improve confidence in what we do as a sector.

So what does the past 12 months tell us? Helpfully it has challenged the notion that HE is a slow sector and that we can’t make things happen which is great to see. There have been lots of opportunities - virtual events have rocketed. Nobody now is being excluded from an open day because they can’t afford a train fare and that is a fantastic thing. It also gives us opportunities to think about the provision of higher education as well. Distance learning is in place as it’s had to be in place but when the world opens up again, those technologies, those practices and those cultures that have started to grow can retain in place. Then the way that’s being delivered right now isn’t necessarily the way you would want to deliver it going ahead for any length of time. But the good news is that students don't necessarily want to see that change right now either and I think there was an expectation last year that we would see students postpone en masse, students drop out of education en masse, switch to distanced learning/open university courses en masse and that sort of provision. We didn't see it happening on the scale that people thought it would happen. There was still a lot of confidence in the sort of business-as-usual models. I think what we take from that is we shouldn't ignore those opportunities, we shouldn't plan with those options in mind but we don't need to rush into anything. From our perspective when we look at the reform conversation wherever that lands, we are sort of recommending that we don't implement anything before 2024 at the earliest because people have to prepare. Students most importantly have to prepare - they need to know what journey they are going through so we would recommend the same thing that you do have time to think through those options and what they might look like.

So pulling it together into the reform conversation then, we published a report a couple of weeks ago on where we think this will land. We are recommending a post qualification model, but post qualification offers. For us, the key reason we want to do that is because relationship building between universities and students is probably the most important of the whole process. If we look at our direct clearing applicants, there is a marked increase in the numbers that don’t enroll compared to everybody else even when you control the data for the characteristics of those students. So that relationship building is absolutely critical, we must retain that at all costs. But would you recognise there are still challenges in implementing a PQO model so we are open to the idea we would embrace incremental change rather than significant reform.

I am not going to go into the depth of our report, very conscious of time. But what I probably want to say is that whether we have significant reform or whether we have incremental change, for us there are 2 key points that have to underpin whatever that direction is and I think it applies to the sector as much as it applies to us. The first is that whatever way we go forward, we have to achieve a balance between simplicity and breadth. Having a central service in the UK does give the sector significant efficiencies whether that’s minimising those repetitive jobs or freeing up that capacity that you have to add value to students, relationship build, personalise targets all of those sorts of things. It also gives us that really rich data pool of applications so we know more about students, we know more about who is suited to different types of courses, something we have put to great use in our Clearing Plus tool which really targets opportunities that are fit for certain types of students. It also does need to have breadth, because if we don't have that breadth in the system we close doors. It’s all well good developing apprenticeships, all and well good developing distanced learning and flexible models but if students don't know how to access them, there are going to be empty courses so we need to get that balance.

The final sort of key point is that we absolutely need to do everything with a focus on transparency and trust. We need to make sure that this process is something students engage with as that's how you get a place at university. We need to do it because they want to work with UCAS and as institutions you need to build that relationship so they want you to be the one to guide them through the journey and building that relationship from the earliest possible point. I am going to stop there as I am conscious of time.


Kim, thank you so much. That was fantastic insight and some real food for thought for where we want to go forward. Just a couple of questions, what do you feel are going to be the greatest challenges for the sector in responding to change? Will it be the institutions themselves, engaging students or a combination of both?


So I mean I think it's fair to say it's a combination of both and as I say for me, it's about bringing students onboard with those changes. This is why we are making those changes and this is why it's a good thing for you and quite easily because we are so close to the process we forget how close students aren’t to the process. The majority of them only go through it once, so it's a bit of a black box for them. It’s important for us to take a step back to sort of bring them onboard to share their stories with them. It’s been great we have seen change within the sector but it is a challenge within HE. Particularly from our perspective one of our biggest challenges is the fact we all use different systems so we can have a great idea but distilling that idea across different systems making it a national approach, it's not straightforward. That for me is where the timed things come in, I don’t think it's not an insurmountable challenge but it takes time.


I think just to add to that, you know as we have said change has become the new normal. There are some great positives on how this sector has responded in the Covid environment but do you think the UK sector can standstill in relation to Admissions or do we need to keep pushing that bar and evolving at a much more pace?


Our perspective is that we absolutely need to keep evolving and absolutely need to keep pushing. And you know if I am being hand on heart honest, a lot of universities tell us we need to change so we hear that and take that onboard. We will do our bit but it always works best if we do that together, so we will do what we can do but importantly that universities come along with us, the colleges come along with us and we work collectively to benefit students.


Great, thank you so much. I am sure there will be more questions at the end for you. I am pleased to introduce Kathryn Blyth as our second speaker. Kathryn is the Academic Registrar and Director of Student Administration at the Australian Catholic University. She has responsibility for domestic student admissions for all 8 campuses at ACU. She is the incoming President of ATEM (Association for Tertiary Education Management) from June 2021 after previously holding the role of Chair for the NSW/ACT region. Kathryn is currently studying a Doctor of Education at the University of Southern California looking at first-generation students and their sense of belonging at university. Kathryn is also currently a Board member of the Heads of Student Administration association for Australia and New Zealand. Kathryn is bringing to life the international experience today, sharing insight about Admissions practices in Australia. Kathryn thank you so much for joining us today


Thanks Cat and hello everybody. Very pleased to be here, hope you can hear me ok. It’s very interesting to hear what Kim had to say because the Australian model is so similar in some ways and different in others.

We have what you were calling Post Qualification admissions in place and that's been our model in Australia. ACU (Australian Catholic University) where I work has campuses in 3 states and each of those states has its own admissions system, their own tertiary admissions centre and of course they are all different. So we are very experienced in navigating across the different systems and trying to attract students using similar systems but different technologies and different methodologies as well.

The tertiary admissions centre process is essentially for school leavers and a post qualification admissions process so the offers go to students after their results are available. In December, there is the first offer round and that is for an academic year that starts at the end of February and early March. Increasingly, all universities in Australia are moving away from that process and every university has their own direct application process and ACU is no exception. We are increasingly making offers to students on the basis of criteria other than their school results so we are going in the opposite direction of the UK basically. The thing that is really important we have been working with and have been aware of is about 50% of our student intake is non school leavers so we are constantly thinking about attracting students through the admissions process who have been away from school for some time. Admittedly, quite a portion, probably almost three quarters of our non school leaver profile are under aged 24 so it's not been long since they have been away from school. But they are categorised as non school leavers and in many cases have either done other kinds of study or they want to be selected on the basis of their school results which are a number of years old.

So if I could use the New South Wales Tertiary Admission Centre as an example, the students apply to a central admissions centre for the main kind of process. They can make 5 different preferences for their offer round that we have but we have multiple offer rounds. Students are clever and they will work their way around the system. One of the things that they will do is to get an offer from a university in one round in December and if they change their preferences they can get themselves another offer in another round in January and get multiple offers that way. Which is a real problem for the sector because we have all these offers out in the system and we are never sure if the students are actually coming to they actually enrol. But almost every institution has some kind of direct application process as well and those are growing rapidly.

At ACU, we have introduced in 2020 our own direct admissions process called ACU Guarantee and we are actually making offers now on the basis of the student’s Year 11 results. In New South Wales, that works really well because the tertiary admissions centre actually receives school results from all the schools when New South Wales has a moderating process so it's fairly robust. But essentially, based on the Year 11 results, the tertiary admissions centre is actually generating a predicted rank for those students so it’s completing what you do right now and that's what we are heading towards. We have only done that for the first year and what we have found was, for New South Wales, the predicted admissions rank was quite similar to the actual rank the students got. There was a little bit of variance but it wasn’t too much. However what we found was that students applying from other states, so Queensland and Victoria, there was quite a difference so we are reviewing that and looking at how we might refine that a bit more. But what is happening as a result of that is students, particularly in New South Wales because it is more progressed, have a really high expectation of getting an early offer. And because there is not a lot of visibility across the different institutions, there will be students who could easily get five university admission offers in the early round and then participate in the main round, and get another lot of offers again. That makes it really difficult for us to figure out which students will actually come.

So in terms of our direct student application process, we make unconditional offers in some offers and conditional offers in our more competitive courses so we have both of those. This is the first year we have done it - it was a huge success in terms of getting students to apply and enrol but we will have to look at the retention data at the end of the year to make sure we actually kept them.

In Australia in 2012, it was a while ago now, there was a demand driven system introduced so that was about identifying that we have a lot of minority and disadvantaged students who were not participating in higher education to the same degree as the more general population. The whole idea behind the demand driven system was widening participation and what actually happened was we had huge growth in enrolments but there were marginalised students in real numbers that grew but in terms of percentages there was very little change. So we are still grappling on how to attract students who might otherwise not consider higher education. I think we are grappling with a similar problem with the UK in a report Kim mentioned in that we still have the complexity around admissions such that disadvantaged students are more disadvantaged as the process is so complex.

More recently a couple of years ago, there was a transparency in admissions review and a result of that all universities are required to publish their admissions ranks and it’s actually been quite interesting because while we publish our lowest entry ranks because we got these direct application processes on the side where we don’t use the entry rank that students get, in reality it’s arguably less transparent because the direct entry pathways have grown so much. The criteria to be admitted through these direct pathways are very similar to my institution so in effect it has made the process far more complex so for students who don’t have their access to other careers assistance at school or family, experience with higher education navigating their way into Australian university is more complex now than it's ever been before.

We are grappling with the same issues - I think transparency around those processes is a problem for us and again the students who know how the system works will shop around to get multiple offers and decide which one they are going to take. Whereas students who do not have knowledge on how the system works are just getting more and more confused. While in Australia, we have the system of post results offers and that works very well. I’m very happy to answer questions about that and we have created a much more complex system in order to try and get as many students as we can all get. It’s introduced much greater competition I suppose and I am quite pleased students who have worked out how the system works are using it to their advantage to get into good courses they would like to be in. Like I say, students who are disadvantaged and don’t have that information on how the system works have a greater disadvantage because it’s just so complex and they find it quite difficult. So I will stop there and Cat if you don't mind I am happy to answer any questions.


Thank you Kathryn, that was really helpful. I suppose a quick question before we move on is what would you think would make a future admissions process successful - what would you keep and what would you change?


I think transparency is really important. I think that the real measure is that it is there and equitable and that everybody who has the potential to succeed has an equal opportunity to get a place at the university that they would like to go to and that the information they have is the same information that everyone has - and access it much more easily. I think the thing I would change is, everyone is working on this, but it is to really simplify the application process so students have a really clear idea of what they can do, what their options are and how to navigate the process.

In terms of what I think our admissions system works quite well and I think the horse is probably bolted. We have probably gone down the path of all these different entry mechanisms so we are kind of undermining the process that exists. But I actually think it’s a fairly robust process and think as a sector if we came together and agreed to use that, it would stack up and would be fine.


Great - thank you so much Kathryn. I am pleased to introduce Andrea Turley as our third speaker. Andrea is our lead Education SME at PwC with a particular focus on strategy, student experience, marketing and admissions. Andrea joined PwC after working as the Chief Marketing Officer across a number of institutions in both Australia and the UK. Andrea is speaking to us today about the changing student expectations. She will also bring to life a technology solution that showcases how we can digitally deliver an improved student and staff experience. Andrea I will hand over to you.


Thank you very much Cat and thank you Kim and Kathryn for your conversations. It is really interesting to see the contrast globally between the UK and Australia and some of the challenges around admissions, transparency and fair access. Thank you so much for the opportunity to speak. Today I wanted to talk a little bit about the changing expectations of students and really how they are engaging with institutions, particularly with the role of digital.

So I am going to touch on a few key points and hand over to Ellie to bring to life a solution where it shows you how you can actually make some of these happen with the technology that is currently available to use in institutions. And Kim you touched on the fact that lots of people use different systems in different ways of doing things so we certainly have had a focus here at PwC on how do we streamline that. How do we put the student at the heart of that but also recognise, to the point you raised Kim, giving the staff the tools to enable them to work most where they are needed, rather than be busy doing the busy work which we all have experienced in the sector in our various different roles.

Admissions is particularly critical on that student journey, it is such an important milestone for students and Kathryn reflecting on your point about giving them the right information at the right time and that accurate information is absolutely critical. So as Cat mentioned earlier at the start, we are seeing students change their expectations on the way they want to engage with universities and it is much more to the out of sector brands we are seeing so we will do it on our day to day basis as part of our lives. Brands like Boohoo for example, brands like Amazon, Uber, Deliveroo - they are really engaging in a real time digital way. This is exasperated due to Covid around how their interactions are pushing forwards so there is an expectation now when students engage with us as universities in the sector, that that is the experience we have.

We know that isn’t always the case across the sector so we recently at PwC we ran some focus groups right back at the start of the pandemic around some of the challenges of students, how they were feeling about the pandemic and what their views were. They were overwhelmingly positive around some of the response in the sector to the way recognising the challenges the sector had digitalising operations, digitalising teaching whilst trying to keep the lights on and moving things forward. But the main area of complaint, if I can use that word, was the way the universities were engaging with them so it was really difficult to get answers to the questions. They couldn’t find anything simple and easy on the website. We had one student talk about sending an email, waiting 3 weeks for a response, sending another email, sending another email, creating this backlog. We also had another example of a student talking about getting to print off a form to then scan it and send it in. I’m bringing to life a couple of extreme examples so forgive me for that. It is just demonstrating some of the things our students are managing on the day to day basis and thinking about how we can really improve that.

What we are also keen to do and something we are looking at PwC is how we leverage the trends around customer behaviour and the customer recognising the external view of how they are engaging with brands outside of their university experience. And thinking about what some of those trends are telling us, about how we need to engage with students from a sector perspective. So just a couple to kick off this morning is that 75% of customers want to engage with a brand online first as long as the information is reliable and accurate. So what does that mean for the way we are engaging with our students throughout their perspective student journey to current student journey. What information are we providing online? Is it a primary channel of choice and how are we using that effectively?

The use of AI is really powerful so there is statistics out there, and i appreciate there is a lot of statistics out there about customer behaviour, but there is a number that supports the use of AI in how we work with customers and with students is rapidly growing and we are seeing for example in 2021, it had been forecasted that 15% of all interactions with customers would actually be led by AI rather than a human touch which is a 400% growth since 2017. So it is something we are pushing forward with and something we engage with on a day to day basis ourselves. So the use of chatbots, there is a great example in Australia of Deacon University who use a digital assistant or voice, Deakin Genie, supports students with their learning journey. There are some great examples of institutions that are leveraging that but how can we here in the UK think about what we are doing moving forward.

We know students are multi-deviced so I can imagine you joining this webinar you might have a phone in front of you possibly 2 phones in front of you, possibly multiple screens, a laptop, a tablet all sitting around too and you are all engaging on these at one time. We know when people watch tv, they are not solely watching the tv, they usually have 1 or 2 devices at their disposal at one time. So we know students are active across these channels where they engage with you. From being on your website doing a search, to your live chat, potentially on social media at the same time. So how are we capturing some of those interactions? How are we choosing which channel to engage with students? And how do we manage that? Our students expect us to understand that those are the channels to engage on and how do we bring those messages together to respond and engage with them effectively.

Another key theme we are seeing is around data and Kim touched on this earlier as well is how do we collect and use that data effectively. Institutions have a plethora of data at their disposal. I am not sure we all use it as well as possible in terms of our proactive engagements with students and I think this is a key theme for the sector and both Kathryn and Kim have touched on this is that the profile of students is changing. The support for students going through a really complex admissions process is much needed so are we giving students the right information at the right time? Are we proactively engaging? Our students know that they are giving up their data and are quite savvy about that, and they expect us to be ahead of the game in telling them what they need to do next. And there is a question for us to consider about whether we are doing that effectively or not.

The other question that has really come up, and no doubt in your institutions particularly with Covid really pushing the agenda of hybrid working, what does the admissions workforce of the future actually look like? So if we are looking at AI and we are using automation and things like that, that takes away the focus of the busy being busy work and processing things multiple times. So what sort of skills do we need in the admissions team to engage effectively? What do those teams start to look like? How do we reshape roles and skills to deliver the right information at the right time in the right way to add the most value to students?

So a couple of things for us to have a think about and now I am going to introduce Ellie shortly and she is going to bring to life a very very short taster of something we have built here at PwC which is using the Salesforce technology. It’s bringing to life how we can create some self service opportunities for students. How we can do things not using the human touch, waiting till it is required so using automation, using chatbots and also the use of data to engage students effectively across their admissions experience. It is just a short snapshot of something that is much bigger but I will introduce Ellie to take you through that now. Thanks Ellie.


Thanks very much Andrea. While we are getting the video brought up for you, I will introduce our institution for the day which is Higher Education University based in the Midlands with an exceptional engineering department, particularly chemical engineering. Our applicant today is Sadie, so Sadie has previously applied to a different institution but had a change of heart. She originally applied to do maths and now wants to explore chemical engineering. So you can see here she previously attended an open day with Higher Education University on the right and she has come back to this portal which is the same portal she used previously. She can see all the features in one place and crucially she can see that she can submit an application directly to Higher Education University.

So she can go through and do it really smoothly. Her information is pre-populated where we already know it from her attendance at the open day and she can quickly input her information there. This form takes her through in a really structured manner and she can tell us all about her qualifications, selecting from a variety of qualifications she may have achieved. She can upload her relevant documents directly into the portal and she can see that nice success message there. She is confident they have all gone through and before she submits, she can see a full application summary just to make sure she has all of her information right. So moving through in just a matter of a few screens to get all her information ready and she gets her confirmation. There she can see she can do lots of things with this portal including FAQs and tracking her application.

Elijah, our advisor, has just logged on in the first day of clearing. Crucially, he can see critical management information around the performance of various courses, which courses have places left in clearing etc. And on the right hand side, he can actually see his task list in line with that information. So in his task list, he has received a new application from Sadie so he can select that directly from the main screen. He will move this application to In Review as he gets started looking at Sadie’s information. And now returning to Sadie’s view, Sadie is now understandably really keen to get an update on her application and things will be moving quite quickly. So she goes back in to track her application after a few minutes, and she can see the latest data so Elijah had updated that in review and that is reflected here in Sadie’s view.

She can see all her information if she needs to provide any additional documents, she can do that directly in this portal too and she can double check her qualification to make sure she has put them in correctly. Crucially, Sadie knows she can use this portal for a lot of other things as well and because she is really keen to understand how long timeframes might be, she is going to explore the Frequently Asked Questions section. So she can self serve on the latest help information she might need. If for any reason, Sadie was unable to find any of the information she wanted through her FAQs, she can start a chat with an advisor and again it pre-populates the information that we already know about Sadie. In the first instance, we can automate this with a bot that would actively use the knowledge base and if needed we can transfer to a live advisor making sure Sadie has access to all the information she needs when she needs it and this can be seamlessly done through the portal.

So Sadie has just asked a question to Steven our advisor and she wants to roughly know how long it is going to take to hear back about her application. She can see live that she is getting a response from Steven there. That takes a moment to come through and you can see that has pulled some of the information live through from the knowledge base and Sadie is really pleased with that response and that makes it really really clear for her. So she is going to thank Steven and then while Sadie is waiting, Elijah has been going through and starting his review of Sadie’s application.

So what you can see here is Elijah’s live application review and on the left hand side, he has got a predefined checklist or workflow that he can work through, which means he is operating with a consistent process for every application he reviews. You can see that the documents that Sadie uploaded have been provided in line with the right place within that checklist, which means Elijah can smoothly move through that view and can see all the information he needs to at the right point to make his decision.

Fortunately for Elijah, this was a really easy decision and Sadie looks like a great candidate so he is going to flip his recommendation to Admit and just provide some text there as to why he would like to admit Sadie. What we can also do here is if Elijah was a little bit unsure, he can create this recommendation and still send off any views he might need, whether this is with a peer or if he needs to escalate to a manager.

We will return back to Sadie’s view now as Elijah just makes his recommendations and decides to admit Sadie which we can see here. And now Sadie who we know is eagerly awaiting her answer returns to her application tracking. You can see that she has been made an offer at Higher Education University. She has a little notification bell in the top right that lets her know she has had an update and she can directly choose to accept or reject her offer live in the system where she sees her other information, seamless and easy for her to use. Sadie is going to go ahead and accept that offer and get a congratulations message. Sadie can now return to the homepage but we know Sadie has changed, she is not an applicant anymore she has ultimately received an offer at Higher Education University and the portal has updated to reflect this. So this is a portal that can stay with Sadie throughout the entirety of her student journey. So now it is suggesting she can build her welcome week schedule and start to get excited about the activities she can partake in her first week at Higher Education University whilst still seeing a suitable place to submit any enquiries that she might need.

So just a quick snippet and a quick runthrough of some of the ways we might use technology to address some of those changing expectations. Andrea I will pass back over to you.


Fantastic, thank you very much Ellie. And I think that concludes the speaker's part so I will hand back to Cat to take some Q&A. Thanks Cat.


Thank you so much Andrea and Ellie, that was great. Just a few questions coming in so Kim one for you. You outlined some of the current challenges across the admissions system and their impact on students. Do you have a view on how long it will take to make real change across the system? And do you think the Department for Education has a view on how quickly they want to see change happen?


Yeah, I mean some of the change actually there are a lot of quick wins out there if we look hard enough for them and we all commit to implementing them. So from our perspective, for example such a straightforward thing but in the UK we have multiple different deadlines for applications to be submitted and then for responses to be submitted. One of the things we have done in the past 12 months is rationalise that to just make it easier for students to navigate that process if they don't have access to teachers in the same way. You know why would we go back? So there are little things actually when we look that we can do to prevent quite quickly and I think we are developing a programme of work that whatever happens as result of the consultation, we will want to get cracking on those changes. In terms of significant reform though, as I said earlier from our perspective I would recommend that nothing earlier than 2024. We need to change our systems. Universities need to change their systems. Advisors need to understand how to support a student through a new journey and those students are making those decisions. They are picking their Level 3 subjects and they need to know how that fits into their future planning. So we would recommend that it doesn’t come too soon and I think the other thing to bear in mind in the UK context is that there are 4 nations. There are reviews happening in Scotland that probably need to conclude before we sort of start a journey of change in the admissions process. Yeah we see a review of qualifications for example, we need to understand that and how that fits into the future. So we think not too soon, maybe kind of 4 years to see something fully implemented. We understand the DfE’s appetite is for change, for change reasonably quickly but ultimately they will want it to be successful so I think they will be quite open to working with the sector on suitable timescales.


Great thank you so much Kim. Kathryn really interested to hear that you are dealing with multiple admissions processes across multiple states. No mean feat - do you think you can increase transparency for students across the multiple admissions systems you have to deal with? Or do you think you need to have a streamlined model in the first instance?


I think that a streamlined model would be easier for students to navigate and I think that the multiple approaches that we have advantage the students who are already advantaged because they have much greater support and understanding how it all works. However, having said that it’s going to require the institutions to come together and collaborate and agree to streamline that. I think that as ACU is across 3 states, the degree of this kind of variable offer rounds is quite different in the states and to a degree I can see it was forced down that path because everyone else was doing it and to remain competitive we had to do it as well. So we jumped in with everybody else and I think that as a sector we really got to reflect if we are doing the students any favours. I think we are going to have to collaborate in order to kind of unwind some of that and that is going to be challenging.


Thank you Kathryn. I just want to thank everybody for your attendance today, it has been greatly appreciated. We have received many questions before and after the webinar and for those we have been unable to answer, we will come back to audience participants with more information. So please keep an eye out on your emails and inboxes. We hoped you found the session to be informative and useful, and we look forward to running more webinars with you in the future. Stay tuned for more information on these. A huge thank you again to our speakers - really grateful for your time and your insights you have shared with us today. And a big thank you again to our audience - I really hope you enjoy the rest of your day. Thank you so much, take care.

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Caitroina McCusker

Education Leader, PwC United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)7764 331623

Andrea Turley

Senior Manager, Higher Education Specialist, PwC United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)7483 422772

Chris Cooke

Senior Manager, Contact Centre Specialist, PwC United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)7483 440 543

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