Interpreting student behaviour in a global pandemic

Tuesday 2 March 2021, UCAS advice


Interpreting student behaviour in a global pandemic


Dr Katie Bell, UCAS

More change to come as students remain passionate about changing our future.

I have worked in education for more than a decade, and before that another decade in the world of corporate global marketing. They share many of the same requirements: a firm finger on the pulse, and a keen understanding of the way that consumer behaviours develop. It doesn’t take a psychologist or an economist to diagnose the big dynamic shifts of the market, but understanding them at a micro level (not just Gen Z, but students within Gen Z, for example) requires a deeper social study.

And that is, largely, what we at UCAS have been doing in our ten years of Lifestyle Reports.

These past 12 months have painted a far more moving picture than any previous period. They have shone a light onto the resilience of young minds, onto the stoicism of their ethics, and their commitment to change. We received more than 12,000 responses in this year’s research, comprising more than 100,000 questions answered, and if there’s one thing that all of these tell me: it’s that this generation will be better custodians of the world than we have been.

They vote as much with their hearts, as their minds.

This was the biggest theme of the biggest chapter of our Lifestyle Report this year: Brand & Spend.

A collective youth social consciousness is not new to history, but there is a new consideration this time. Counterculture of the 60s isn’t remembered for its ability to topple corporations, or for the proliferation of information at the tap of the thumb. This time around, as students stand up for the causes they believe in, shaping the fortunes of the world’s biggest brands is very much something in their arsenal.

The results of this chapter tell us that they want three main things from brands:

Sustainability is of the utmost importance. It was the number one attribute that defined what students thought the next biggest brand was going to be, and it was the thrust of hundreds of comments centred around why current brands are becoming less popular.

Ethics play a crucial role in the purchasing behaviour of students. They lined up, rank and file, to tell us about the myriad moral offences of brands they’ve broken up with this year. From tax-avoidance to sweatshops, homophobia and racism to animal cruelty, it takes a squeaky clean PR machine to avoid the wrath of student conscience these days.

Independent retailers hold a special place in the heart of students. Students have a core opposition to the world of big business, and react far more favourably to small ‘indie’ retailers. At the heart of this drive are the platforms which make it feasible: Depop, Etsy, Marketplace. There is a connection to the one-off, the hand-made and, perhaps, the not-from-a-chain-store.

But let’s not forget the heart of the matter. You can do everything right, but still get it wrong (if you forget the second P of marketing.) As one student put it to us, when talking about why they’ve stopped shopping at LUSH, they want to effect change, they just can’t afford changing their purchase patterns yet:

“Really nice products and good company ethics, but too expensive now.”

The money is moving, not leaving.

At this point, you might be resigning yourself to a year of jumping through student hoops to keep their attention, and your share of their vast purchasing power. And whilst it’s true that you may have to adjust your approach, the good news is that their spending has remained incredibly resistant to the impact of 2020.

Pre-university spending increased compared to 2019, but it came later than usual. The changing of restrictions and doubts around start dates had its effect, and families waited for confirmation and assurance before investing £2k+ in their children’s futures.

Freshers Week was a strange affair. Having arrived at their campuses in the midst of a second wave and new restrictions, the lack of those infamous celebrations would have left a big hole in the university experience. But if we take those off the table, spending also slightly increased. New behaviours, same budgets.

Settling in never takes very long, whilst they would have been continually adapting to the new rules and regulations that characterised Q4 of 2020, they still needed their groceries, books, stationery, food, and clothes. Here, again, spending was up.

So, how do you take advantage of this?

Insight as a key for the lock.

The prestige of UK universities attracts students from every corner of the globe, for both the education and the experience. We are one giant melting pot, one giant port  city, where different cultures combine to create a fantastic fusion that will create the bedrock of creativity, innovation, and enterprise for future generations. and form a  unique collective personality.

Today’s everyday undergraduate is markedly different from 2010’s student. Or even 2015’s. They are the median of Gen Z, digitally native and information hungry,  looking for something to trust in a world where the behaviour of so many businesses doesn’t quite sit right with their outlooks.

As Clare Marchant, UCAS Chief Executive, put it:

“UCAS is evolving from an organisation that has been focused solely on progressing students to three-year undergraduate degrees, to being the destination in the UK for providing advice, guidance, and support to students to help them make the right choice for them.”

This applies as much to their home and personal as well as to their academic lives. At UCAS, we are more than just an admissions house: we are a market research and data analysis hub, an advertising studio channel, an outreach centre and much more. It is our job to both fully understand the student psyche, and to help brands interpret this insight to better serve, engage and communicate with this market.

Over 10 years of Lifestyle Reports, and 30 years of student support, we have developed the insight, analysis and deep understanding of students entering higher education. We know how to engage with them, and we know a lot about them. We would be happy to help you or your organisation understand more about how to reach and engage with this cohort.