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The New Normal

In these already turbulent and increasingly changeable times for the domestic Higher Education sector, the global pandemic that we are currently living through has led to unprecedented levels of uncertainty. None of us really know when society, the economy and life in general will return to normal; will it be weeks or months, will it be May or even September?  The phrase of the week seems to be that ‘this is the new normal’.

In the new normal, planning for and predicting the future is tough. We are going to have to be more agile and more flexible than ever before. We will also need to gather as much information and data as we can to inform our rushed decisions and avoid costly mistakes.

Over the course of this week, in between failing to be an effective Reception and Year 2 primary school teacher, refreshing online grocery shopping pages in the vain hope of finding delivery slots before mid-April, and generally worrying about anything and everything, I have been looking at what the new normal has done to prospective student search trends. To be honest it is not that pretty.

Let’s start with the bigger picture; Google search trends. This week and last saw the lowest share of search for key search terms such as ‘best university’, ‘which uni’ and other terms that are in general related to prospective students researching their options.  Overall we seem to be seeing around a 25% drop in the use of these types of search terms towards the back end of last week and into the beginning of this week. In some cases, there is the hint of a recovery over the last few days, possibly as people become more accustomed to the rhythms of our new normal.

Drilling down a little further and using Similarweb (a tool that allows you to compare traffic, engagement and other metrics across different sites), showed that the majority of websites which could be broadly be termed ‘university research sites’ have seen similar drops in traffic over the last month to two weeks.

In addition to the data, the team at IDP Connect have been sitting at their kitchen tables, sofas, bedrooms etc all week speaking to institutions about their experiences. The general feedback we are getting supports the stats.

This then brings me on to Whatuni and the Complete University Guide, two of the sites we own and run at IDP Connect. We’ve used the same method as Google Search Trends where the numbers on the Y axis represent search interest relative to the highest point on the chart for each day. A value of 100 is the peak popularity and a value of 50 means that the term is half as popular. In the graph below we are showing users searching for courses/providers day by day, year on year, matching to the equivalent day, i.e. Monday to Monday etc. We have also only included those who arrived on the sites organically, so the findings are not skewed by any marketing campaigns that we ran.  As you will see, the picture is not positive. Searches have dropped significantly when compared to last year and the percentages involved are not dissimilar to what Google Search Trends and Similar Web showed. Without wishing to be too Pollyannaish, there is small glimmer of hope, with the beginnings of a recovery over the last day or two showing in our numbers and again matching those seen elsewhere. Let’s hope that we will see this recovery continue and that, as the government issues more information and guidance and we all get used to our new normal, we see a semblance of normality return to this year’s admissions cycle.

We will continue to publish this data regularly over the coming weeks and months and would welcome an open discussion with regards to what others are seeing and any other good sources of information that people are using. Please use the comments box below or contact me or your usual IDP Connect directly.

In the meantime, please do get in touch if you have any further questions. Stay safe and look after yourselves.

Jonah Duffin
Jonah Duffin25 March 2020