Strategic Enrolment Management

Ensuring survival in our new world order

Mary Hughes

Lead Consultant | AUA Consulting

Mary Hughes has extensive experience of university administration and management within a career of over 30 years in the United States, Germany and the United Kingdom. Mary has established Enrolment Management Services at the University of Kent before becoming Academic Registrar. Mary is now a Lead Consultant with AUA Consulting.

The HE sector, like the country, is frustrated, frightened and gasping for breath.

With reluctance, the sector engaged with the marketization of HE forced upon it by successive governments: marketing departments were established, strategies written and budgets allocated.  Reacting to the market when the unexpected happens is part of the strategy, but when the fundamental rules of the market are changed, what then?


Brexit was a bummer and required a rethink due to the inevitable shift in demand from the EU; the resultant hostile environment and the impact on the overseas market were less expected; nonetheless, a recruitment cycle allowed for institutions to shift focus.  A pandemic mid-admissions cycle was wholly unexpected.  And yet many institutions reacted: when the market falls, sell cheap.

Unlike many businesses, HE is limited in how quickly it can adjust its marketing mix: changes to product, place, process etc all take time (although the sector exceeded expectations in response to the mandated lockdown).  But the single variable available for adjustment, ‘price’, has, ironically, been denied by the same government keen for marketization.

We’re not talking pounds and pence, but tariff.  While variation in fees is limited, institutions always had control over tariff—the higher the tariff the more ‘expensive’ the institution. Applicants with sufficient points had purchasing power for select institutions. Even with regulated numbers, HE was supply and demand led.  However, when institutions slashed the ‘price’ (unconditional offers) to ensure ‘sales’ (places), the regulator stepped in to deny this fundamental response to market demand.

Not only has price been constrained. With the international pipeline shut down, institutions sought to attract other sections of the market, the home student.  This too has been denied with home numbers now capped.

So much for marketization. And for all those glossy marketing plans. Oh wait, what about the student?

Institutions are scrambling to secure this year’s intake, but what about the future?  Neither the European nor international market are likely to recover soon and the discerning home student will hedge bets before making a significant investment in education while institutions are redesigning their core product and the economy so uncertain.  So what should institutions do to ensure their survival?


Back to basics

Many institutions have worked hard to grow number, sometimes to the detriment of their core mission and values.  Is this the time to re-evaluate and re-configure their approach?  The world has shifted on its axis; student and employer needs are different. Does your current offer, your curriculum, to include both co- and extra-curricular, address those needs?  Brexit and Covid19 have not only affected the student market, staff too have been severely impacted and post-December 2020 this is likely to be exacerbated. Can you deliver your offer with your (assumed) staff compliment?  Academic as well as administrative?  In short: is your mission fit for purpose in this new world? 

Review: Bottom up or top down?

The on-going challenge in HE is the need to respond to demand with limited ability to re-tool.  Any curricular offer needs to be aligned to the research expertise and/or specialisms of staff.  Do you have the right people in the right place doing the right thing?  Is your institutional framework appropriately structured?  And do you have the resources? 

Will student life ever be the same again?  Not for a long time.  What can you offer in the current circumstances?  Who will it suit?  Do you require investment in your online provision? (I can already answer that!) What other changes do you need in your environment to ensure the health, safety and comfort of stakeholders?  With blended learning the new mode of deliver, do you need to review the shape and structure of your academic year?  Your attendance requirements and monitoring?  With lesser need to be present, what is the value of your housing stock and sports, leisure and social facilities?  What additional/alternative demands will there be on your student support services, both personal and academic? 

Is it time to take stock and, rather than chase the market (is bigger always better?), be true to yourself and offer what you do best. Is it time to refine/redefine your institutional mission (and those all too difficult to define and agree values).  The needs of both staff and students must be at the heart of this in order that you have a mission that can command shared ownership and shared responsibility.

The alignment of strategies:  Strategic Enrolment Management

Recent events have required us to rapidly revise all we do with limited time for reflection and wider consultation. Is now the time to reflect on lessons learned and to consider how best to position ourselves in this new world?  Universities will need to ensure all their strategies are appropriate to the new world order and are fully aligned, from academic development to staff policy, from education to estates, from financial modelling to marketing, etc–this is the core of Strategic Enrolment Management (SEM). SEM is a planning process attuned to internal and external stakeholders that ensures all activities are mission driven and have at their heart a culture of student success.  Student enrolment goals need to be based on institutional capacity (the ability to deliver the whole educational and student experience to all), not just to address financial targets. 

A SEM planning process requires institution-wide responsibility for delivery of the academic mission and student success.  It considers not just budgets and funding or marketing and recruitment, but integrates admissions practices and standards with academic preparation and retention with an appropriately designed and delivered curriculum that address learning styles and methods; research capability and knowledge transfer, career development and external stakeholders, alumni relations and advancement; infrastructure and environment, connectivity, town/gown relationships and civic mission; the institutional profile and the demographic profile of students, staff and the wider constituency.  In a nutshell, the curriculum is predicated on mission appropriate programmes and preparing students for the future, and student numbers are determined on institutional capacity and capability, not strictly on revenue generation.

We will continue to operate in a market driven environment, but planning holistically and realistically, attuned to the hearts and minds of our stakeholders, can foster an environment which fulfils the needs of staff, students and our communities.  In short, when we take time to breathe, we’ll stop gasping for breath. 

Mary Hughes is a Lead Consultant with AUA Consulting. If you’d like to find out how AUA Consulting can help your organisation explore the issues discussed in this blog, including using Strategic Enrolment Management, email consulting@aua.ac.uk. Find out more at AUA Consulting.

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