Dr Claire Taylor gives an insight into the thought processes and priorities of one 17 year old currently researching courses for 2014 entry.
At the time of writing, 2013 is old news. That is, old news for higher education student recruitment professionals up and down the land who are now turning their attention to 2014 recruitment. Tried and tested open day formulae are swinging into action, course information packs are being refreshed and websites updated. The race is on to attract applicants from the pool of over half a million candidates who will be considering university entry for September 2014.
A large proportion of potential 2014 applicants are currently in year 12 at school and aged around 17 years old. I am the parent of one such 17 year old and so find myself in the interesting position of inhabiting a dual role with regard to student recruitment. On the one hand, I am one of those higher education professionals directly involved in student recruitment activity; keeping a close eye on the implementation of institutional strategy as well as pragmatically ensuring effective operational implementation. On the other hand I am a nervous parent – desperate for their offspring to find the right course at the right university for them and hopefully secure a bright future.
However, the other day, I found myself putting my parental ‘hat’ to one side and viewing with a new objectivity how my 17 year old was approaching course and university selection.
Picture the scene. Me, at one end of the sofa, with the weekend papers. My 17 year old at the other end of the sofa – laptop balanced on knees, smartphone in hand. “So…what are you up to then?” I ask. “Oh…doing some uni research,” 17 year old replies. At this point I experience various emotional reactions including: relief that ‘uni research’ has actually started; a sense of almost irrepressible inquisitiveness as to which universities were being looked at; the urge to get fully involved – but an urge I fight to hold back, given that the 17 year old would interpret this as interference. So, I wait, hoping that I’ll be let into the process by being asked a question.
A few minutes pass and then the moment comes. But to be honest the question is unexpected. Nothing along the lines of “what does 320 UCAS points mean? or “how far is it from Liverpool to Plymouth?” Rather, the question is “Err…is 64% good enough?” “What do you mean?” I answer. “In the KIS, is 64% ok for course satisfaction?”
Cue further emotional reactions on my part. I am impressed that my 17 year old knows about the KIS – clearly some work has been done at school around this and I later found out that the whole year 12 group had been fully briefed on what the KIS was and how it would allow course comparison. But in addition, I am slightly worried that my 17 year old is attracting a high level of importance to KIS data. Finally, I realise that tens of thousands of 17 year olds up and down the country would be going through the same exercise as my 17 year old…including potential applicants to my own institution.
Now, let me be clear that I have absolutely no problem, in principle, about the availability of information to help student choice. However, some of the shortcomings of the KIS are well documented. For example, full KIS data may not be available for newer courses or for those courses with small student cohorts. In these circumstances, a lack of data does not reflect on the quality of the course…but does a prospective applicant really appreciate this? Just how much help does a prospective applicant get in order to understand what KIS data means?
So, I felt the need to help my 17 year old further interpret the data on offer. We talked through what the various satisfaction scores meant and what the percentages may suggest. We touched on the fact that the NSS scores represented the feelings of a particular group of students (just final year students) at a particular point in time and that the views of another cohort or year group may be quite different. We discussed the employment statistics related to the proportion in managerial/professional jobs six months after graduation and the fact that in some industries this role may not be prevalent. How ‘contact time’ was viewed by my 17 year old was fascinating. Going through some of the courses, she pointed out to me that for some courses, the percentage of time spent in various learning and teaching activities (lectures, seminars etc) was too high. Her argument was that as she wanted to do a practical subject, she should spend less time in ‘lectures’ and more time ‘doing’, this was despite me pointing out that learning and teaching activities may encompass a whole range of practical activity. No, she was quite clear that a high percentage was not a good thing.
Overall, though, the worrying thing for me was that my 17 year old was using the KIS as a fairly crude screening tool. She had used the UCAS website to draw up an initial list of universities that offered her subject, then she was looking at institutional websites and going straight to KIS data and looking in particular at satisfaction scores, employability prospects and contact time. If scores did not align with her expectations, she looked no further and moved on to the next institution on her list.
So, my message to all of us involved in student recruitment is this – do not underestimate the influential power of KIS data. It is worth finding out how your prospective 2014 applicants view your KIS data and what support they are getting in using it. Do you know which parts of the data are important to them and do you know how they are interpreting the figures? The answers to these questions may not be quite what you expect and perhaps there is further work to be done in partnership with schools and colleges to refine applicants’ understanding and interpretation of KIS data in order that their higher education choices are truly informed.
Dr Claire Taylor is Vice-Principal (Students and External Relations) at St Mary’s University College, Twickenham, London