Positive with a hint of caution - the UCAS Media July newsletter

Monday 19 July 2021, UCAS advice


Positive with a hint of caution - the UCAS Media July newsletter


It’s finally here.

This week, most COVID-19 restrictions were lifted in the UK and we can mercifully, cautiously, look for normal service to resume.

And whilst many of us will choose to uphold our safeguards for a little while longer, it will be refreshing to see the return of daily life and the impact it has on HE.

In preparation for a busy summer, a new term, and the start of the 21/22 cycle – we’ve been getting the lay of the land for you. Within this newsletter is a rundown of the world’s view on UK universities, the surprising state of applications, and 5 ways you can nail your Clearing campaigns this year.

The UCAS Media Insight Newsletter is your monthly snapshot of what’s going on in higher education; how student behaviours are changing, what policy is coming over the hill, and how you can leverage our resources for your benefit. You can sign up here.

Here’s what’s been happening in June 2021:


Learning is, and has always been, a global practice.

The pull of higher education drives a migration of keen minds all across the world. But today it’s less of a romantic pilgrimage to indulge in the libraries of Rome, more of a buyer’s market with endless choice and options. Not to mention a commercial lifeline for HEPs the world over. Now, universities compete for the same students from opposite sides of the globe and each country has its own unique profile.

(Although, ask Henry II whether his ban of English students attending the University of Paris in the 12th century wasn’t an indicator of the competitiveness to come…)

The UK, home to some of the world’s oldest and most prestigious centres of learning, has always been an education destination of choice. But rising tuition fees, the impact of Brexit, the growing choice and calibre of overseas universities, and the as-yet-uncharted effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, have all taken their toll. 

But to what extent? Well, not as much as you’d expect.

  • 88% of overseas students see the UK as a positive or very positive place to study
  • 63% believe the UK is a better option to other countries they’re considering

But despite these strong profiles, only 5% made all of their choices within the UK.

Our research shows that, in the wake of the pandemic, students are thinking longer-term. They are less willing to make snap decisions, and are evaluating their life after university in finer detail:

  • 72% need more information about how the pandemic will impact the academic year
  • 59% want to hear lived experiences from current students who’ve studied during it
  • 54% want to secure a job in the country where they studied
  • 37% want to secure a job in their home country.

For universities looking to recruit from overseas, these objections need to be answered via international student marketing. With the positive UK sentiment standing strong, but facing resistance from the justified anxieties of would-be students, it is the provider which fully addresses these objections which will come out on top.


At several points throughout this pandemic, it would have taken a brave analyst to forecast a position of strength for Higher Education. Campus closures, grounded planes, online teaching, and cancelled exams all looked like they’d send our sector to the doldrums. 

But now that the crucial June deadline has passed, we have clarity on what the 21/22 academic year will look like. In what we hope will be a post-pandemic world, there is hope on the horizon.

Record numbers of students are set to take their next step this summer, with applications and university offer-making both increasing. From what we can see, we’re predicting the next academic year to be the biggest since records began.

Numbers are up in all four nations of the UK, and even offer-making from the most selective universities has increased (a second rise in as many years.) 

Since 2019, there has also been a 20% growth in offers to students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.

Our CareerFinder tool, which helps students find jobs and apprenticeships, experienced its record year. In the last 12 months, it was used for 1.35 million searches, which is 37% higher than 2020. As a result, there have been 225,000 job applications (+24% Y-o-Y.)

The student market isn’t on pause in this pandemic. 

It’s on fast-forward.


Unplaced applicants have increased by 33% compared to 2020. This is partly applicants who’ve received no offers, but also includes those who have declined their offers (a group which has grown compared to previous years.)

These mind-changers are likely to be open to new opportunities, so Clearing 2020 may be one of the most fruitful opportunities for HEPs yet. We asked students what they wanted to see from the all-important university email campaigns throughout this period:

  1. Personalise your subject line and emails
    On A Level results day this year, subject lines which included the student’s first name were opened more than those which were generic (37% vs 33%).
  2. Use an email preheader 
    On SQA results day, only 14% of the HE Clearing emails used a preheader, but these were opened by 38% of recipients compared to just 31% of those without. If you’re wondering what a preheader is, it’s the snippet of text that follows the subject line. If you don’t include one, it’s just the first sentence found in the email. 
  3. Include individual course buttons or a list of linked courses
    We saw increased engagement within emails which included courses that were clickable, generating CTRs of 2.4% vs 1.6%. It allows students to quickly and easily find the content which is relevant to them.
  4. Optimise your creatives for all devices
    In August 2020, around 60% of our emails were viewed on desktop. But more than 70% of clicks took place on mobile. Don’t miss out on opportunities to engage with students because you’ve built your campaign to favour one device over another.
  5. Use colour and images
    This one might sound straightforward, but it was a common theme in our focus groups. Photos, pictures, eye-catching design, spaced out text - these are all important elements to capture and hold student interest.

For more specific advice on how to implement these five recommendations, and the full stories about international recruitment and a record year for HE, please get in touch.