Higher Education: EVERYTHING has Changed

Mustard’s David Hickson on the strategies being adopted by higher education institutions as they seek an antidote to the ‘perfect storm’.

When the then Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi announced in March 2022 the Government’s proposed crackdown on “Mickey Mouse” degrees and a requirement for HEIs to publish drop-out and graduate employment rates, it felt like yet another blue touch paper was being lit within the UK’s already besieged HE sector.

Unsurprisingly, the subsequent reaction, opinion, hype and hoopla was not inconsiderable and, in truth, is still ongoing. Researchers were very quick to pick up on Zahawi’s comments and began publishing lists of the “worst VFM” UK degrees (apparently it was close between a module on Taylor Swift and an entire course on patisserie technology), and used forecasting models to pinpoint those degrees which would deliver the lowest average salaries over a 5-year period.

Columnists and commentators informed us that such proposals would ultimately punish working-class students wanting to attend university, without addressing the lack of viable alternatives and the limited opportunities available post-graduation. It was also suggested by several thinktanks that the value of a UK degree is being seriously eroded by the UK’s current 40-year high rate of inflation, with businesses channelling reduced budgets towards salary increases aimed at retaining senior members of staff, rather than those at the start of their careers.

Whatever your take on this, what can’t be disputed is that the UK higher education sector is facing a multitude of challenges fuelled by Brexit, the economic downturn, societal change and the impact of marketisation. The implications for HEIs are not insignificant:

  • The number of EU students enrolling in UK universities has more than halved since Brexit.
  • A recent cost of living study conducted by Mustard found that only 8% of adults were considering studying for a HE qualification (compared with 16% a few years ago).
  • The perceived levels of debt incurred from attending university.
  • Undergraduate and postgraduate students are becoming increasingly demanding, yet in many areas, satisfaction scores are as low as they have ever been.
  • The number of student complaints about university courses in England and Wales reached a record high for a fourth year running, in 2022.

What’s very apparent is that being able to attract, engage and retain the right students has never been more important, nor has it ever been as tough. However, although this perfect storm continues to cast a dark shadow across one of the UK’s key sectors and drivers of growth, it’s encouraging that HEIs are acknowledging the situation and, crucially, are beginning to adopt corrective measures.

The most forward-thinking institutions are using consultation, research and insight in four very important ways:

First and foremost, some are starting to turn the tide by engaging stakeholders in the process of defining their brands more effectively. Some criticise the sector for a lack of brand differentiation; ensuring an institution’s brand is differentiated, compelling, believable and future-proofed is an essential starting point. Recently, Mustard has been working with a number of leading UK HEIs, to provide a better understanding of what the brand stands for. Insight programmes are also being used to track precisely where brands currently sit enabling them to prioritise specific areas for improvement.

Secondly, other institutions are recognising they can’t be all things to all people, and are using research and insight to define, identify and target the lower-hanging-fruit. The market is evolving and it is neither finite nor homogenous. We are helping HEIs by developing segmentation models and providing a deeper understanding of who their target audiences are and what resonates with them; to inform strategy, gain competitive advantage and target more effectively.

Meanwhile, we are seeing an increasing demand for insight around ensuring programmes and curricula are fit for purpose. Mustard is working with HEIs to develop UG and PG programmes that align to the ambitions of both academics and students, whilst addressing skills gaps facing the UK / global economy.  This means evaluating the programmes relative to what students could potentially access elsewhere.

Lastly, and perhaps most important of all in the world of elevated experience expectations, we have clients in the sector that are using insight to understand and monitor the extent to which they are delivering the right student experience. In recent national student surveys, ratings for student mental health and support plummeted – so it’s crucial that HEIs continue to invest in student wellbeing. Insight is needed to understand what support is required – where, when and why. Having (just about) navigated Covid, now is the time to step up and support students through the CoL crisis and deliver experiences that will reignite their enthusiasm and passion for studying at university.

If you are interested in learning more about Mustard’s credentials in the Higher Education sector, please contact David Hickson (

Written by David Hickson
Posted on 24th May, 2023