University fairs, compare & contrast

Last week I attended the UCAS London fair, the biggest university fair held in the UK each year. It brought me back to my days of organising three busses to take the entire Taunton School Lower Sixth down to Exeter Westpoint, though this time I was pleased to only be attending with one colleague and did not have to worry about misbehaving teenagers.

I attend a lot of university fairs, either as an exhibitor with my own stand or as someone seeking information, and in my career I have been involved in the organisation of many more. I find the culture of UCAS and international fairs to be very different, and feel that there is probably something that each can learn from the other.

Most of my international and North American colleagues would be horrified by a UCAS Fair. US and international fairs are governed by a series of rules, enforced mostly by NACAC but also put in play by organisations such as the Council of International Schools. No gimmicks, no giveaways that don't have an educational component, make sure you stay behind your stand, and many more. In my role as a fair host I have had to reprimand university representatives who, unknowingly, contravened some of these rules, thinking that the fair they were attending was the same as a UCAS event.

At UCAS London, I saw a range of innovative ways to grab student attention. There were VR portals allowing attendees to speak to real students, a stand set up like a college bookstore (clothing shop, to UK readers), one with a giant mobile phone so students could use the university app, another with a map of the campus on the floor of the stand. Students were enticed into each booth by the free giveaways, glossy marketing materials, teams of uniformed recruitment staff and the sweets (candy) on offer.

And yet, on most stands I visited I was unable to have my detailed questions answered. One university rep looked blankly at me when I asked how their new medical school would be assessing non-EU applications, another had no idea that their IB entry requirements had just changed significantly. My colleague, from the USA, was completely new to the UK university sector, and very quickly realised that the people manning each stand were not admissions staff, but members of a recruitment team, some of whom spent almost their entire time representing the university at fairs and events.

In contrast, I am constantly amazed by the knowledge and expertise of my international colleagues. Their stands may be relatively simple - a tablecloth, perhaps a floor stand but more commonly a small table stand, some brochures and maybe an enquiry card - but the information that can be gleaned in a short conversation is hugely valuable. When the institution is a US one, it is also quite likely that the person you are interacting with may also be the person reading your application.

However, for students used to the glitz and buzz of a UCAS fair, an international university event can seem quite sedate. Yes there is space for conversation, but where are the free pens, the enticing stands, the sugar?

So much of the work that I do is governed by some underlying assumptions, and a large part of my time is spent addressing misconceptions about universities based on these incorrect assumptions. On a wider level, we also have assumptions about what the wider university search and application process is like. How do students first interact with a university? What do they and their parents expect that interaction to feel like?

An unexpected development in my work has been universities asking me to facilitate school visits for them, and I have recently been (politely) nagged by previous attendees of my events to put together plans for the autumn. I have come to realise that as someone with a foot in both camps (not merely secondary school and university, but also being a Brit who understands the international market) I have found myself in a position to bridge this assumption gap, to facilitate smooth interactions between students, schools, parents and universities. In the widest sense, this is what international independent university counselling is all about, making the initially obscure and bewildering less so in order to allow students to reach their potential.

David Hawkins