A new horizon in marketing strategy for student recruitment

Posted by Charlotte Boaden

The world of student marketing and recruitment has always been fast-moving and highly competitive. However, with the COVID-19 pandemic and Brexit added into the mix, even the most experienced student recruiters have been challenged beyond anything previously imaginable during the past few years.

The knock-on effect across the globe of these major world events has been felt across sectors and by society. For Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) these changes have been keenly felt with significant adjustments to course delivery happening almost overnight. This has resulted in even more pressure put on those responsible for student recruitment and retention to keep both existing students happy with the new status quo and attract new students, without the guarantee of face-to-face and social interaction which characterises the university experience for so many.

Before the words ‘COVID-19’ even entered the modern vernacular, Brexit was already creating a huge change in student applications to HEI’s. Having already had to be ready to pivot their marketing plans last minute depending on the outcome of Brexit, student recruiters are now turning their attention to the impact of falling applications from EU countries.

That said, the global outlook for applications to HEIs remains positive with indicators still showing an increase year on year. The challenge for student recruiters is to ensure they understand the shift in this international demographic, where potential students are coming from and how to recruit students with this in mind. This will undoubtedly be coupled with an understanding of how potential students' wants and needs have changed, as a result of the pandemic and other global trends. In this article, we look in more detail at where the challenges and opportunities lie, what this means for student recruiters and the role of a CRM in achieving this.

Key changes to marketing strategy for student recruitment from 2021 and beyond

International student recruitment in numbers 

To say it’s been a time of significant change for international student recruitment would be an understatement. Even before it happened, the global uncertainty caused by Brexit was having an impact on applications. Then came COVID-19, causing more concern with borders closing and face-to-face contact a thing of the past.

The impact of these global events was a 40% drop in EU student applications to UK institutions in 2021, according to figures from UCAS. Fortunately, for HEIs both in the UK and APAC interest remains high from non-EU students with applications continuing to increase. In the UK, January 2021 deadline applications from non-EU students were up 17% from 2020 . While Australian universities have experienced a huge 47% increase in international enrolments during the past decade, which is showing no signs of slowing. The rapid growth of higher education in Asia has also been linked to an international increase in university applicants with a report from UNESCO Institute for Statistics finding that global enrolment at HEIs has increased by 46% - from 32.6 million in 1970 to 182.2 million in 2011.

Recruiting future generations 

UCAS figures show a steady increase in the percentage of 18-year-olds in the UK applying to a domestic university, despite recent challenges. In 2022, 44.1%  of 18-year-olds applied through UCAS in time for the January deadline, up from 42.6% in 2021 and 32.7% in 2012.

While it’s positive that there is still a healthy pipeline of domestic and international students ready to be engaged by all that your institution has to offer, the job of student recruitment does not stop there: online student recruitment is becoming increasingly important.

On top of changes to how, where, and why people want to learn and get a university education, brought about by COVID-19, the wants and needs of the next generation of students and how they engage with and consume media and marketing messages is ever evolving. Student recruiters and marketers will need to understand this and continuously update their university branding campaigns and plans based on the data surrounding this. What worked even two years ago may not now, especially in online student recruitment.

While trying to keep up with the latest terminology from ‘Gen Z’ to X, Y remains important, most people under the age of 30 can be safely classed as ‘digital natives’. To digital natives, experiencing and engaging with hyper-personalised content via their devices at the touch of a button is second nature. This Netflix/Uber generation expects outstanding experiences every time they engage with an HEI.

The impact of the pandemic on student recruitment in higher education 

In addition to their desire to engage with HEIs in a hyper-connected, multi-platform environment when deciding about which university to choose, students also want the same from their learning once they arrive - so make sure your marketing strategy for student recruitment demonstrates that prospective students will get this.


While the pandemic delivered some devastating consequences for students across the globe in terms of their opportunity to learn in the face-to-face classroom environment they anticipated, it did help accelerate HEIs understanding of digital learning and force them to be innovative, both in terms of academic delivery and student recruitment. As this article by Wonkhe put it “there’s much to celebrate and learn from advancements in digital recruitment practices during Covid-19.”

As well as accelerating understanding of how and where potential students are and want to be spoken to, the move to at least partial digital learning is also here to stay. It’s at the forefront of student concerns, with 59% of students ranking ‘high quality online teaching’ as a top requirement from their HEI when surveyed by Pearson and Wonkhe.

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Student recruitment trends for 2021 

Safe in the knowledge that there is still a healthy market for university places and armed with an understanding of what potential students want, HEIs are getting to work and making sure they get their share of applicants. Every institution has its unique offering and ideal demographic of applicants, but it doesn’t hurt to know the current student recruitment trends.

Expanding digital presences 

Switched-on HEIs are expanding their digital presence to engage both existing and potential students and ensure speed of reply via Chatbots and self-service information hubs. The standard of online student recruitment is improving. Many student recruiters are also making sure that the type of content they are sharing suits the audience with more student-generated content, video and social posts that can be interacted with.

Honing the right message for international student recruitment 

More focus is also being given to the message and tone of communications to ensure it strikes the right balance with a discerning audience of international students. Tailoring within the target audience is also becoming more crucial and will affect marketing strategy for student recruitment. For example, students in North America prefer to learn about course delivery, while the Asian audience prefers to hear from current students.

Punch above your weight 

Targeted, creative campaigns are where many lower tariff universities are stealing the march, with students choosing them based on clever communications. Medium tariff universities are more likely to be chosen based on student reviews and high tariffs through league tables, though of course imparting this through communications campaigns for these HEIs is crucial.

Don’t forget the 6% 

While the majority of students are digital natives, globally there are potential applicants who may not have regular access to the internet and social media. Research shows that 6% of global HEI applicants don’t have access to the internet at all.

How to create successful student recruitment campaigns 

HEIs have had to adapt to significant changes over the last 12 months and beyond in light of the pandemic and response to Brexit. However, the appetite for the university experience remains, albeit in a highly competitive environment. Below are some considerations for improving student recruitment levels.

Reconsider your CRM usage 

A recent survey on CRM use from AACRAO found that only 3% of responding institutes used a CRM to support the full student lifecycle. Whether simply focusing on retention, alumni engagement, or the online student recruitment process, usage is more likely to be fragmented, serving different functions of the institution instead of addressing the full picture. However, by bringing together all aspects of the CRM with end-to-end integration, it can help to streamline the student experience and provide a holistic approach to student data and insight.


Communicate at every stage

Following the unique challenges prospective students have faced over the past year, it’s critical that institutions communicate effectively to engage and retain student interest. A recent report, The Impact of Coronavirus on Global Higher Education, revealed that 57% of prospective international students claimed that their study approach plans had been impacted in 2020 by the pandemic. 47% of these students chose to defer their university place until 2021. Regular communications with these students, and native students, at every step, will prove invaluable to ensuring their enrolment continues as planned.

Consider digital materials and virtual events 

Students and professionals will likely be well-versed in online learning at this point. The pandemic saw a rise in online and virtual events, and the benefits of these will likely remain far beyond COVID-19. By integrating any digital materials such as this into your CRM, the right tool can unify data from in-person and digital events to support your marketing strategy for student recruitment and further support engagement. For example, a prospective student could be provided with beneficial resources such as webinars, talks, Chatbot integration, or personalised materials.

Track your success 

Your marketing and student recruitment activity should be measurable and readily available to be analysed. A CRM can help to measure the effectiveness of recruitment activities by tracking conversions and leads and can also help to set metrics for success. By unifying all channels and activities, a CRM can provide a feedback loop of continuous improvement to determine the success of the investment made and ultimately to answer - what next?

Tribal’s Student Marketing and Recruitment Solution 

A strong programme of student marketing and recruitment and successfully securing applicants each year is mission-critical to HEIs large or small, across all corners of the globe. It’s essential that they are utilising their Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems effectively to help them achieve this. Yet, research found that 75% of higher education institutions were not maximising the use of their CRM systems.


In our experience, successful student recruitment campaigns and effective use of a CRM system such as Tribal’s Student Marketing and Recruitment solution, built on Microsoft Dynamics 365 and the Power Platform, are often intrinsically linked. That’s because when used effectively, a CRM system can revolutionise the student recruitment process. Not only that, CRMs can be used to enhance the entire student lifecycle, from initial enquiry to enrolment, graduation, and right through to alumni management.


To find out more about how CRM systems can bring your student recruitment and retention campaigns to life and the benefits they can bring at every stage of the student journey, download our free guide to ‘Getting the most out of your CRM in Higher Education'. The guide explores some of the issues raised in this blog in more detail, explains CRM in easy-to-digest pointers – including actionable tips, and looks at the future of student recruitment and retention.

Download the guide to get the most out of your CRM


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