Open days in higher education: A fun event with a serious purpose

For universities, they are about marketing. For potential students, they're a must
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The Independent Online

Autumn is a busy season on university campuses. It's not just the swarms of new arrivals clogging cafeterias, bars and – occasionally – lecture halls during freshers weeks. There are also the days when universities welcome potential students for the following year's intake, events that can temporarily swell the campus population by thousands.

An open weekend at De Montfort University in Leicester earlier this month attracted more than 3,000 visitors, and a similar number are expected at its final open day of the calendar year, at the end of October.

De Montfort has increased the number of open days it stages every year to five – two in July and three in the autumn – because of the growing importance it attaches to proactive marketing. Kate Foster, head of student recruitment, says that she has noticed new universities upping their game on this front in recent years. "We don't all have the benefit of history, reputation and league- table ranking," she explains, "so we can't just sit back and assume that students will come to us."

De Montfort tries to strike a balance on these occasions between presenting itself as a fun place and a centre of serious academic study. "There's an informal atmosphere, and we want it to be a good day out, but the academics are on hand, and potential students can get into the detail of course content and value."

Like most institutions, the university's faculties also lay on open days, spread throughout the year, for students who have included the university on their Ucas application. These include a seminar-style session directly relevant to the course that students might follow. "We strongly believe that the students should want to study the actual course they've chosen," says Jo Hart, marketing manager in the humanities faculty.

The next month or so looks pretty hectic at Kingston University, too, with the doors being flung open on three Saturdays within a five-week period, just the time when about 7,500 new first-year students are settling in to their new surroundings. These events usually attract around 1,000 potential students, each accompanied by, on average, a couple of others – parents or older siblings – to help in the decision-making process.

Kingston's website, like that of many other institutions, includes a snazzy virtual tour of the university, featuring animated maps and photographs, and video clips of current students giving their view of university life in this corner of south-west London. Birmingham University, whose open events are confined to two days at the end of June, has gone a step further in its online tasters for potential students. Talks recorded at last summer's open days are now downloadable from the website.

However, Mike Pollard, Kingston University's UK marketing manager, says that there's no substitute for meeting people in the flesh. "It's really important that we provide an opportunity for people to meet academics and current students, so that they can ask questions about what they've read, and discover what's different about doing a degree at Kingston."

Although, in general, the more established universities don't stage quite as many open events as the former polytechnics, most are reporting, and responding to, increasing demand from potential students, and parents, for opportunities to visit. This has led Keele University, for example, to host two annual open weekends, the next being in the middle of October.

Keele's head of undergraduate recruitment, Mandy Firth, concedes that, just weeks into the new academic year, this places a substantial demand on academic staff. However, she says that it's vital that people thinking about applying to Keele get a first-hand feel for life on the campus – a self-contained site in rural Staffordshire, a few miles from Stoke-on-Trent – and fully understand the structure of courses there.

Essex University is also laying on an additional open day this year, during the October school half-term holidays. "We had lots of individual requests for campus tours that week," says Rachel Earle, head of undergraduate admissions, "so we decided it would be easier to have an open day!"

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