UCAS extends its influence with new student hub and Unibuddy partnership

UCAS are an independent charity, but also the gatekeeper for higher education in the UK. Anyone who wishes to study for an undergraduate degree in the UK has to apply through UCAS.

And it's successfully handling more applications.

This year, in particular, UK institutions have experienced strong growth with 4 out of every 10 young people applying to UK-based institutions and non-EU applicant numbers rising over 8%. The latter is partly being driven by China, with applicant numbers up by 30% to 19,760.

A closer look at UCAS

The UCAS mission statement says it is at the heart of connecting people to higher education. Its aim is to inspire and facilitate progression in education through information and admissions services.

Currently, UCAS is funded from three sources. Firstly, every applicant pays a fee, £20, or £25 for multiple applications. Second, universities and colleges pay a capitation fee relating to each student being admitted through the system. Thirdly, UCAS has a commercial arm with activities covering distribution, database management, email marketing, and coordinating conferences and events.

UCAS appears to be repositioning itself and exerting more influential through its digital initiatives. Two major developments, for instance, have launched in the last few weeks that are worth exploring.

Let's take a closer look.

New Digital Product Launch #1 - The UCAS Hub

Students and those advising them tend to stick to what they know, rather than highlighting and discovering new or less conventional education opportunities.

To address this, UCAS began looking more deeply at the choice paradox students face in making an institution decision, and how big data and personalization in digital channels could come together to transform the way students make their post-school choices. The aim was to use data to challenge blindspots and expand choices.

In September this year, they released the UCAS Hub, personalized, digital space for anyone considering their post-18 choices, as well as potentially those thinking about returning to education.

It's billed as a place for exploration and reflection, designed for students to return to time and time again while they make what could be their first life-defining decision.

Turning the student research process on its head

With information on around 35,000 undergraduate courses on offer from multiple sources and sites, it's not hard to imagine an abyss of unnecessary facts and figures that students can find themselves knee deep in.

The UCAS vision is to make life easier for prospective students and transform the way they research and make university decisions.

Rather than seeing applying to a university as a single transactional, deadline-driven process, they want students to start much earlier with their research and to view UCAS as a partner in this decision-making journey.

Students will be encouraged to reflect on what's important to them, whether that be location, employment outcomes, graduate salaries, teaching quality, or a combination of them all.

The tools are then designed to help students interrogate and refine their choices in a personalized online portal.

Meanwhile, for schools and colleges, the Hub offers teachers the ability to set their own deadlines to make sure that students are on track to make their choices and complete applications in good time, avoiding the last-minute demands for teacher input around the January UCAS deadline each year.

The UCAS Hub is gaining traction

UCAS has a naturally high flow of student traffic and uptake of the platform is growing. For those early adopters, the indications for the platform seem positive.

In a survey of those who have used the Hub so far, 60% said it has made them actively think about an option that they weren't initially considering, whether that be a different university or college, a new subject or an apprenticeship.

Over a third also said they're now thinking about universities with higher entry requirements than they had previously considered.

Learning from the past, to inform the future

UCAS sees huge potential for the Hub and the data that flows through it.

Clare Marchant, UCAS' Chief Executive, said: "We want to turn the research process on its head. Rather than having to seek out information and advice, then create an application, our new Hub will instead encourage students to reflect and define what's important to them and their future, with relevant information and ideas being offered."

"The Hub gives students the opportunity to explore everything in one place. We're already seeing them taking the time to delve into all available pathways and discovering the exciting routes on offer. As an independent charity, we're well placed to offer impartial advice for students, and the Hub will help them navigate the roads ahead."

New Digital Product Launch #2 - UCAS partners with Edtech start-up Unibuddy

Hot on the heels of the Hub launch, UCAS has also announced a partnership with Edtech start-up Unibuddy, a platform that connects Gen-Z prospects with current students online through a LiveChat style tool.

The new partnership is designed to digitally connect undergraduate applicants to current students at universities and colleges across the UK. It offers a unique opportunity for higher education providers to engage with applicants as soon as they start exploring their options through the admissions service's website.

Following a successful pilot with several universities in July, the service went live this month with Unibuddy now being embedded into ucas.com here. Providers that participate through UCAS will have the opportunity to connect with around 700,000 applicants each year – from initial research, through to acceptance and enrolment.

For institutions, Unibuddy can bring value with some finding that prospects are over 34% more likely to enroll following a Unibuddy interaction. The platform also provides insights by analyzing conversations to measure the engagement and to understand what prospects are talking about.

Creating more connections and engagement from earlier in the cycle

What has become clear is just how engaged today's students are - even during traditionally quiet times in the cycle. And they are increasingly savvy to the various marketing techniques of universities. Instead, they are seeking genuine connections with those who have relevant experience.

Having a peer-to-peer student communication platform, therefore, on institution websites certainly makes good business sense in terms of boosting engagement.

For universities, it presents the opportunity to not just showcase the diversity, but to truly provide and encourage representation - giving your own students the confidence to present an authentic view of you to a much wider range of prospects who may not have even considered you before, in an environment they trust.

But UCAS has an authority amongst this audience that should not be underestimated. And the organization is clearly asserting its power and influence by delivering digital initiatives that support students directly.

Through initiatives like the Hub and embedding Unibuddy on ucas.com, they are also seeking earlier direct engagement and more impact on student's decision making. During the Unibuddy pilot, for instance, UCAS found that students connected with 23% more ambassadors on ucas.com than on institution websites.

This doesn't mean it's time to dispense with peer-to-peer platforms or other tools on the institution website. There will be a natural flow of traffic to these sources and engagement will continue to happen there.

But if UCAS is extending it's power and building out more digital engagement tools perhaps UK-based institutions have to take note, get involved and ensure they're featured there.

Do you see ucas.com as another useful engagement channel or a threat to the engagement going on at your institution's website? We'd love to hear.

In the meantime, we'll continue to keep you updated on further developments coming out from UCAS.