Last week, we delivered a webinar on the topic of gaining students in the new normal (access the recording here). This was inspired by our whitepaper on the topic. This is the first in a series of three blogs that further describe the challenges surrounding universities.

The UK is proudly home to some of the world’s most prestigious universities. Worth £40bn, the sector also makes an impressive contribution to the UK economy.

But it’s a sector under pressure. A challenging financial backdrop, rising competition, fewer students and a global pandemic are just a few of the challenges it faces. Added to that, the next generation of prospective students – Generation Z – is increasing the pressure. They have strong views and their expectations are sky-high.

Institutions that want to stay relevant and succeed need to adapt. In a tough marketplace, those that don’t rise to challenge may find they don’t have a future at all.

A changing and challenging market

The dynamics of the higher education market have changed beyond recognition over recent decades – indeed the sector has only been considered a ‘market’ since the 1980s.

Political turmoil in the shape of post-Brexit fall-out is challenging the UK’s position on the global stage. It raises practical challenges – tougher immigration rules mean lucrative international students simply find it harder to come to the UK. Perception matters too, and British universities are having to work harder than ever to prove they remain outward-looking and active players internationally.

National and international competition has risen exponentially. Global competitors – in Asia especially – are seriously competing with UK institutions when it comes to quality and overall offer. 

A drop in the numbers applying for university - both British and international students - compounds the challenge, particularly now that student fees make up the bulk of universities’ income.

Perhaps most significantly, the impact of coronavirus is permanently changing the way universities operate.

Socially conscious – but struggling

Generation Z – the students and prospective students of today – are different from the students that went before them. They are educated, industrious, collaborative and eager to build a better planet. They’re more socially-minded than their parents, more community-minded and more likely to volunteer.

More than 40 per cent of 18 to 25-year-olds cite global warming as the biggest risk facing the world and they want to do something about it. An estimated six million young people participated in the 2019 school strike for climate change.

It’s too early yet to say what impact coronavirus will have on them. They’re the first generation of teenagers to experience a global pandemic in over a century, so the effect will likely be profound.

Experts warn of a mental health crisis among young people, with suicide the second leading cause of death among 10 to 24-year-olds. Anxiety and depression have sadly become commonplace, but with them a growing recognition of the problem. This is a generation less afraid of admitting they have a problem.

Always connected

Although they can fuel mental health problems, the internet, social media and mobile technology has always existed for these young adults. These are the digital natives and technology has moulded their expectations and view of the world.

Brought up in an age where technology has reshaped the way organisations interact with their stakeholders and user-centricity has become ubiquitous, these young people expect slick, digital services that are shaped around them.

They’re also more prudent than generations before them. That’s particularly relevant to universities since the average graduate now leaves university around £50,000 in debt. When it comes to the biggest purchase most of them will ever make other than buying a house, they want the very best return on their investment.

Savvy consumers who want more than just a degree

This generation of sophisticated consumers is interested in more than just the degree they end up with. They are concerned about their career prospects and they want a university that gives them the best chances. They are looking for an all-round experience.

To survive in this challenging market, universities need to meet the high expectations that prospective students have of them. Institutions must have a comprehensive offering that promises the very best education alongside a lifestyle, prospects and support – all delivered by a responsible business.

Those that aren’t Gen Z

It’s worth noting that not all students fall into the same demographic. Around a quarter of undergraduate applications come from mature students – those who are over 21 when they start their course. That said, more than half of those are under 25 and just ten per cent will be more than 40.

High fees are thought to be part of the reason for the drop in the number of mature students. Funding changes also mean there are now far fewer part-time students. So while not every student falls into the Gen Z bracket, the majority of students on campus are in their late teens or early 20s.

Rising to the challenge 

With the challenges coming from every direction, it’s certainly a tough time for higher education.

What is clear, though, is that the route to success is maintaining and growing student numbers. And that means meeting the needs and expectations of Generation Z.

To find out more about the challenges facing higher education in 2020 – and how institutions can continue to thrive – download the new BrightGen ebook: Higher Education, Global Competition and Student Numbers: How the UK’s Universities can Maintain and Gain.