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Posted on Apr 26, 2017

On 14 March the Future Index visited the UCAS Convention at Manchester Central where potential university applicants converged to explore just what was on offer. Our mission this year was to find out if creativity was alive an well in the UK Higher Education marketing and student recruitment world. Here’s just a taste of what we found.


In any exhibition space it’s important to catch the eye. Overall, we felt the universities (and a few employers) did a great job in Manchester. It’s certainly moved on in the last few years. Thankfully the somewhat frivolous attempts of years gone by have been replaced with a focus on subjects , key differentiators and a large helping of competition. Not a chocolate fountain in site! The intriguing UCFB – University College of Football Business – scored early on in our visit by plastering the local football stadia all over its stand. You kind of know what it’s about then. The University of Bradford pushed their technology credentials by defining the very word itself, boldly standing out with its ‘Making Knowledge Work’ and iconic imagery. Sheffield Hallam used the talents of a local artist and alumnus to make a big statement. We assume they were saying that you could do this too.

Yes, there were a few stands populated by a degree of disinterest, but nothing like we have seen in previous years. Overall there was purpose and polish. Arguably the shiniest stand on offer came from the University of Gloucestershire, throwing colour and gloss (no pun intended) into their ‘Glo’ offer at the heart of postcode G50. If ever a university fitted into the latest design zeitgeist then this was probably the one.


There was definitely a trend for replicating unique environments. Unfortunately our camera failed to capture Keele’s pure simplicity of a grass floor with a green campus backdrop. Keels’s notable for its expanse of greenery, so why not? We did capture the developing Northampton campus, complete with its very own tree and Glasgow shared its stunning architecture with us; #TowerSelfies were on offer too. Plymouth went for its very own lighthouse landmark and the New College of the Humanities implanted a slice of London into the centre of Manchester, complete with a London bus of course.


There were numerous attempts to grab our attention with intriguing features. As well as the towers, lighthouses and buses, we loved Leeds Beckett’s giant laptop atop a huge pile of books, perhaps reinforcing the blend of on and offline teaching on offer. Their glitter ball was back too, reminding us that Leeds has a few good nights on offer for when the studying has finished. The University of Law pinned iPads next to a map, each showing different video stories of studying with them throughout the UK. Swansea kept it really simple with floor tiles directing us to their stand. No doubt they had recognised the teenage propensity to be looking downwards as they walk, eyes shifting carefully between their phones and general direction of travel.


So there were the universities that had us in the here and now. But there were a fair few who whisked us away into a virtual world. Clients and followers of our blog will know all about are dislike of corridor VR tours. They can be so frustrating, and, incredibly dull. Thankfully we’ve seen the shift starting.

The University of Bradford have recently launched an excellent 360 tour of their campus. But rather than a difficult wander around, the functionality is set up more like a course finder. Decide on the subject you want, pick a room, and then explore. And there’s plenty of content added in as extra layers. These 360 films are available for VR headset viewing and the team at the stand did a fine job encouraging visitors to immerse themselves in the campus. For those who were particularly enamoured with the experience, there was a cardboard headset to take away so they could try it all again at home. Other universities looked at bringing their own courses and experiences to life. Bournemouth had us transported, via headset, into the middle (literally) of a university basketball game. Staffordshire University took us into a murder scene to make us almost fall of our chairs. The real crime scene houses have long ben the bastion of university open days, so well done to Staffordshire for creating the virtual version.

A special mention to the University of Nottingham for enabling visitors to share in the virtual experience, with their walk-in cube. 3 or 4 were going in at a time to explore the 360 video wall projections. One minute they were in a lecture, the next they were in the middle of a student bedroom. Impressive stuff indeed.

We still advocate that the VR experience can be even more immersive. Next year we hope to join in on Study Abroad trips, to take part in scientific experiments, or be transported to the rainforests to learn a little more about ground-breaking research. And let’s not forget the simplest of ideas too. The University of South Wales gave us flyers to follow their students on Tumblr – that’s another reality we’re interested in.


Of course, we all want to take part if we can. Or at least watch others sample the delights on offer. The University of Gloucestershire showed us their special effects credentials by allowing us to hop on a broomstick in front of a green screen and then see ourselves flying through the sky. The reason was to emphasise how one alumnus had gone on to work on the Harry Potter films. If you want to do the same, then here’s a place to learn the magic. Bolton pushed their sports science reputation by getting us taking part in physical activity – jumping and lifting weights – and then measuring our performance. We did ok. Loughborough had us joining in with bubble technology to make us feel part of a close-knit community – and encouraged us to share their Snapchat filter to make sure everyone knew. #FOMO. We didn’t get to explore UEA’s ‘Art of Science and Murder’ game but we were impressed with the idea.

And then there were the numerous live demos on offer, especially from local, alternative providers. A reminder of the splintering, and exciting, education landscape. Manchester’s very own Futureworks had us considering education away from the traditional university by getting us to sample learning at a very impressive hub.

Our conclusion? Much better! Excellent stands, more interactivity, greater purpose, and fewer gimmicks in sight. Overall a clean bill of health for UK creativity. Well done to UCAS too for hosting the whole thing! Yes, it can improve, and we’ll continue to do our bit to inspire the sector through trends sessions, hacks and creative strategy. But we’re all on the right road. See you next year.

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