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Director of future students – a new title for a new way of thinking?

‘Director of future students’ – it’s one of the newer job titles in higher education to pop up, noticeably so across the UK and Australia. But what exactly does the role encompass, and does a new title come with new responsibilities?

The University of Leicester's future students office was launched in 2017. Photo: Unsplash

Some found themselves in the new role due to restructures within universities

Rob Lawrence, director at Prospect Research and Marketing and renowned industry commentator, has a unique view of the sector, having worked across universities in the UK and Australia over the past 30 years.

For him, the director of future students role is partly the result of a growing philosophy, born out of the Covid-19 pandemic, that brings together marketing to domestic and international students under one policy.

Universities require someone to take control of understanding the needs, priorities and expectations of students, no matter where they come from, says Lawrence.

“It’s a very powerful term because it’s a statement of intent,” he says of the new title.

“It really is that sort of narrowing the funnel to create something which is relevant to people in the future. We need a point of reference for communications, for integration, for effectiveness. It signals to the world outside that we’re focused upon the future in terms of the future students and what they need.

“I like the approach of treating all students as the same students”

“I like the approach of treating all students as the same students,” he tells The PIE.

Of course, Lawrence acknowledges international students come to university through different channels than their domestic counterparts. They have significantly unique needs and expectations but ultimately he agrees with the philosophy that, in many ways, all students should be treated the same, because after all, they are students.

“The future students director actually has to have a really huge understanding of the different value sets which derive domestic and international students. It’s not a basic role of looking after them. It’s almost like what used to be called a global brand manager.”

For Lawrence, the role is not about creating better admissions processes, but about understanding the market.

Some found themselves in the new role due to the enormous number of restructures, reorganisations and consolidation of functions that have taken place over the past few years.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, universities and the sector as a whole lost a lot – from voluntary programs to valuable workers who left during the great resignation. These were “all of the fantastic initiatives that created the experience”, says Lawrence.

Now, universities must hone in on what’s important to people in the future, he adds, and this new title could help to do so.

Donal O’Connor, director of future students at the University of South Wales, is one of those who finds himself in the new role due a restructure in early 2022. Previously head of international at the university, O’Connor says there was a need for a name change due to his new role overseeing both home and overseas recruitment.

“The role therefore changed accordingly, with leadership of staff, targets, and marketing and recruitment strategy across both the home and overseas portfolio becoming necessary,” he adds.

Katy Scott, director of future students at the University of Dundee, tells The PIE what she finds inspiring about the title is that “it ensures that students are at the heart of all that we do, and it helps unite the team around a clear, shared objective”.

“That’s incredibly powerful and anchoring,” she notes.

So what is at the top of the agenda for our sector’s directors of future students?

“That’s easy,” says O’Connor, “meeting or exceeding annual new student recruitment targets, our future students.”

Meanwhile, Scott tells The PIE that this year she’d like to really delve deeper into understanding target audiences, and work on personalising the journey for them.

“That and further streamlining how we work as a directorate, allowing us to work smarter not harder, breaking down remaining silos and sharing skills, knowledge and expertise across the wider team.”

For Lawrence, he’d like to see those in this role focus on gaining an umbrella understanding of the entire ecosystem around students.

“It didn’t used to happen. We used to have domestic people understanding domestic and international people understanding international, and they never really cross collaborated,” says Lawrence.

“I think now the environment is such that possibly is a benefit of post pandemic. We’ve started to understand it as an entire ecosystem.”

Kate Walewska is director of the future students office at the University of Leicester, and was the deputy director for global recruitment at Leicester prior to securing this role. She tells The PIE her core focus is student recruitment, covering all business lines and modes of study.

Leicester’s future students office was launched in 2017 and after some refining over the years, the office now includes: global recruitment for UK recruitment and outreach plus international recruitment with a majority of staff based offshore; admissions and applicant experience (admissions, enquiry management, applicant communications and business systems) as well as global business operations and partnership development.

“We’ve started to understand it as an entire ecosystem”

According to Walewska, prior to 2017 many of these teams were separate, “too often working in isolation” and occasionally seemingly competing. UK recruitment and widening participation teams both targeted the same local schools and often attended the same career events.

“Being one team enables us to share best practice, maximise resources and provide our future students with the best possible experience, at every step of their journey,” Walewska explains.

“Student experience remains our utmost priority, recognising the role we play in helping young people make what will be one of the most important decisions of their life. It’s a responsibility we don’t take lightly.”

Each team is led by an “exceptionally talented head” and supported by a “phenomenal deputy director of the future students office”, she continues.

“Our core aim was to create highly specialised teams that support students from their earliest encounter with the university… all the way through to enrolment, should they decide we are the right institution for them.”

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