09 September 2019
Mary Curnock Cook: recruiting best-fit students by creating personal connections

Mary Curnock Cook was the CEO of UCAS between 2010 and 2017. She transformed the centralised admissions service into a digital service, increasing transparency and fairness. 

Since then, she has maintained a keen interest in the Higher Education sector, and is a supporter of EdTech companies including Unibuddy. 

Mary spoke to Unibuddy about the changing Higher Education landscape. In our last article, she shared how students’ changing attitudes to university were fuelling recruitment tactics, like “conditional unconditional offers”, and other challenges facing institutions up and down the country. 

Now – Mary shares her thoughts on what universities are doing right when it comes to marketing. 

“Personally connecting with students”

Mary has seen great change in the sector during her career. As student recruitment goes increasingly digital, and with their marketing spend under close scrutiny, universities are still learning about the wants and needs of Generation Z. 

Their efforts on social media are producing mixed results, Mary said: “lots of universities are now investing in social media, targeted digital messaging to students – and that’s great and some of them are really good at it. But some of them are less good at it.” 

But the choice of medium is less important than making a personal connection: “I feel really strongly that personally connecting with students is probably the best way of making a student feel comfortable choosing that particular university.”

The personal connection is one of the benefits of Unibuddy: “the Unibuddy platform is brilliant,” Mary said, “because it actually allows the students to have a personal conversation with another student in a very bespoke way. They can choose someone who’s on the course that they’re interested in, or somebody who’s from the same background, or the same country as them.”

Getting students on to campus is also important for giving students that connection with the university – and Mary thinks more could be done to support this: “There has been a lot on social media recently about the cost of going to open days. I’d be putting on coaches from towns in the catchment areas that you want to recruit from, offering travel subsidies, and so on. Because for a lot of people, doing a full five or six open days is a really expensive effort – with petrol and travel costs. Given that universities are targeting a very wide range of students in terms of background,  more investment to ensure that there are no financial barriers to getting people on campus is important.

“For those that can’t travel, the Unibuddy platform is a great alternative.”

Changing demographics – “all of us rely on peer-to-peer”

Generation Z’s increasing demand for personalised experiences and speedy responses is well-documented. But Mary says “things haven’t changed that much.” 

“In everyday life, all of us are relying more on peer-to-peer recommendations. When you’re shopping online, or booking a show, most people will check the reviews before committing. Peer recommendations have incredibly high value. That very personal connection that you get through platforms like Unibuddy seems to play into how people like to do business, do transactions and make decisions.”

For such an important decision, like going to university, the peer-to-peer support that we all seek out is more important than ever. “For many young people, going to university is a transition from a highly managed environment to becoming semi-autonomous individuals who are beginning to map out their own futures.

“Why wouldn’t you want to have a conversation with an existing student? It’s such a big decision, probably the first adult decision that most young people make in their lives. Why wouldn’t you want to have those conversations with your peer group?”

While the students might not be changing, the number of them is. The data points towards a demographic shift that could change the Higher Education landscape. “We’ve got another year, possibly two years where the number of 18 year olds coming out of Secondary Education is falling, and then it will start growing. It’ll grow quite slowly – there’s about another 10 years before we get back to 2009 levels. That will be welcomed by universities who have been battling against these demographic headwinds, plus higher fees, plus more options, and so on. It will be welcome when the numbers start creeping up again.”

But universities must not drop the ball: “they’ve still got to work at making sure that higher education is still seen as a really good option. It’ll still be important to persuade the increasing numbers completing secondary education that there is real value in progressing to higher education.”

On uncapped student numbers, Mary said: “the fact that students numbers are uncapped is still a really important dynamic in student recruitment and marketing. Any university that has the capacity to grow can try to grow at the expense of its competitors. I don’t think we’re going to see any let up in student recruitment and marketing efforts, because every university has got competitors who might be more attractive to some students. They’ve got to get their positioning right and make sure that they get the right students through the door, students who will achieve success with them.”

About Mary Curnock Cook

Mary Curnock Cook left school at 16 and began a career that spanned hospitality, food and biotechnology. In 2002, she achieved a Masters in Business from London Business School, part of the Sloan Fellows scheme.

Her post-university career took her to the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency, and then on to UCAS. The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service handles the application process for all British universities. Mary oversaw the organisation during a period of great change, and increasing digitisation. 

Since leaving UCAS, Mary is on the Boards of several educational bodies such as the Open University, the Student Loans Company and the Access Project, as well as supporting EdTech start-ups such as Unibuddy. 

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