Universities are in the business of signing up students. Most have marketing departments charged with attracting potential applicants - and their parents, increasingly footing part of the bill - who now see themselves as consumers.
So they run open days. These come in two forms; pre- and post-Ucas application. At the former, subject departments will be open; there will be staff and students to talk to, and possibly short presentations on different courses. The student union, library and sports facilities can be seen, and most universities now offer a hall of residence visit.
There should be a programme of presentations on topics such as student life and accommodation, and tips on completing the Ucas form. A special presentation may be arranged for parents, who have a different agenda; their questions are likely to focus on cost of living, academic facilities and job prospects after graduation.
Faced with a lot to fit into a little time, the way to tackle an open day is to make a plan, starting with presentations and departmental visits, and fitting campus tours around them. The day is one or two stages along in the selection process, of course; students are already interested in adding the place to their shortlists. By first looking up all they can find on the website and reading the prospectus, they should have some idea of what else they need to know. Preparing a list of questions is also advisable; they might want to ask about course content, proportion of coursework to exams, transport, accommodation and social life.
It is particularly important to check facilities if the course is one that needs up-to-date equipment; science and engineering spring to mind, but also art and design. Students need to know how much studio and storage space they will have and the likely cost of materials.
At University College for the Creative Arts (on several sites in Kent and Surrey), students may attend two subject presentations, plus one on Ucas forms and personal statements, before being taken by course leaders on campus tours, during which they can view work areas. Deborah Lampitt, who does tours in fashion journalism at the Epsom site, says: "It is important to let them know exactly what they are letting themselves in for. I go through the content of every module."
All universities market themselves. Leeds, a popular Russell Group university, runs open days that are, says Glain Fox, the promotion and events manager, "almost seen as a family day out". There is a chance at this stage for students to discuss courses in detail. Departmental open days come later - for applicants who have put Leeds on their Ucas forms. Open days are "convincers", says Fox: "We are looking for students who are also applying to our rivals. We want to convince them to come here. It's also important for them to see the places where they might spend three or four years of their lives."
Post-application days are usually smaller affairs, revolving around faculties or individual departments. Whether or not they have attended an earlier open day, applicants are now serious potential customers. Research shows that by the time they have been to three they often cancel their remaining choices, so the impression is crucial.
Open days can be time-consuming and, given that students face modular exams at different times, difficult to attend. Many are therefore held in school holidays or on Saturdays, which means that parents need not take time off work.
Some universities go further and offer visits for people who might not have been able to attend earlier days. Southampton University holds three open days but also offers pre-booked campus tours led by current students, in the summer and on term-time Saturdays.
Final-year geography student Nigel Dexter conducts groups of students and parents. "As we walk round, I point out academic buildings and say which subjects are taught there, and we go inside the library, sports centre, Union building and a hall of residence. Students ask about my personal experience; why I chose my course, what the teaching is like, how hard I have to work, if there's anything I don't like, and so on. Parents usually ask about the cost of living and the nearest supermarket."Reuse content