Unfashionably late: Has higher education woken up to the power of data?

Posted: 14 Mar 2019 - 11:39
Has higher education woken up to the power of data?
Businesses driven by data strategies are nothing new. The commercial sectors have been leveraging high volumes of information for decades. Amazon’s monumental growth is largely down to its personalised recommendations, directly complementing its novel business strategy.

Any university or college worth its salt is tracking and recording huge amounts of data per cycle.

Applications, firm choices, insurance choices, acceptances, and open day figures are poised for interpretation, awaiting synthesis with other information – which schools drive the most students, how do different groups engage with communications, and why do first -year students choose that university?

How can you develop recruitment and retention strategies without taking a holistic view of the influencing elements? Forearmed with the geographical hotspots for applications, and a customer persona of the applicants most likely to convert, higher education marketing can be more targeted, generate a greater return on investment, and offer opportunities for automation.

Of course, it’s not just a recruitment solution on offer. Colleges here and in the US have deployed successful data-driven projects to improve widening participation and boost retention (3).

At UCAS Media, we’ve seen a shift in both the number of higher education customers now interested in data and insight products, and the types of analysis they are requesting. This behaviour is changing fast. Those arriving first to the party are now equipped to identify and implement their competitive advantages.

It can feel that the term “big data” has been trotted out too often and has lost much of its meaning. Yes, the level of data analysis needed to drive real business impact is ‘“big”, and can therefore seem daunting in size and scope, but don’t be intimidated by the perceived investment and expertise required to launch a data strategy. Many course providers are sitting on the expertise already, in-house. It may be spread across multiple departments at the moment, but pull together those individuals from marketing, planning and admissions as a virtual project team, and you have the beginning of something special.

Avoid asking this new project team to collect and collate data at the start. Instead, guide them to answer the questions keeping you awake at night – from market share and converting applicants, to widening participation. Align the team to your most pressing need, and you will quickly discover how much imperative data is already in your organisation.

But don’t assume the answers to your challenges are all in the data you have. Once you have a clear view of your position, look to add in the sector and competitor landscape, to really enrich your worldview. This will help put your situation in context, and give you clear next steps, which allow you to start to really take on the competition.

Most importantly, don’t be afraid of what your data might tell you.

If we make the effort to embrace it, the future of higher education is brighter for the data available. Leaps in artificial intelligence and machine learning will only make analysis faster and more accurate, but embedding an organisational data culture starts here and now.

Align your departments, communicate the value, and identify your in-house champions.

Sander Kristel is executive director at UCAS Media 

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