Universities: who are your competitors?


In order to gain adequate information on your close competitors, several analyses exist to help your university stay ahead. However, these models can still prove to be too generic, leading to less accurate information regarding both your university’s positioning as well as effectively locating competitors. Here are some handy tips & tricks to narrow down your real competitors. 

Understanding the landscape: DESTEP and SWOT 

The DESTEP model and SWOT analysis frameworks can help to locate your institution within the wider landscape. DESTEP stands for Demographic, Economic, Social, Technological, Ecological and Political factors. It allows you to identify external factors that influence your university’s positioning compared to competitors. The SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Threats, Opportunities) model unpacks your institution’s place in the macro environment. You can access the   Strengths and Weaknesses of your university. Threats and Opportunities are based on developments within the entire industry.  

A different point of view: Creating perceptual maps 

Creating perceptual maps can allow you to explore different perspectives on how you compare to your competitors, based on any two variables, on the horizontal and vertical axes. 

It may be relevant to compare how your potential students see your institution, compared to other universities. This will help you understand whether your existing positioning strategy is fitting with your targeted audience (qualified students). It may also provide “gaps” for your institution to fill in.  

The framework for a perceptual map is to create two axes, each with one variable. For example, on the horizontal axis may be “price per course”, while on the vertical axis one could put the “pass rate per course”. You can make these maps as specific and as targeted as you wish. However, bear in mind that these variables fluctuate and can change over time. Keep these frameworks responsive and agile!  

Narrowing down your scope 

A factor that truly separates an average competitor analysis from a good competitor analysis is the quality of data used to benchmark your own institution against others. Some micro factors that come into play when identifying your competitors are very specific. Listed below are the key micro factors that make up an effective and reliable competitor outlook. 

  1. Course level comparisons 

Comparing an entire university with yours is inefficient. Generalizing the hundreds of courses each university has, down to a single variable can be a pitfall when conducting a competitor analysis. Instead, pinpoint several important courses you wish to investigate and set those off against another university’s similar courses. This way, a very detailed analysis can be made that holds the most value. 

  1. “Close” competitors, not “nearby” competitors  

Naturally, a university might thoroughly investigate its nearby competitors: who are their students? where do they live? However, the physical location of a university may not automatically mean that they qualify as a competitor. Instead, a university further away might offer a lot of overlapping courses with your university. Focus on your true close competitors, not your nearby competitors –  as they might not even be competing with you.  

  1. Admissions requirements 

Depending on the strictness of your university’s admissions requirements, requirements for enrolling might differ from competing programmes. If a certain bachelor programme at university X requires a TOEFL test and a similar course at university Y does not require any language proficiency tests, students could base their study choice on this often-overlooked factor.  

  1. Global rankings 

Do not always assume that the top-level competing universities are immediately the institutions you require to compete with. Instead, after having located your ranking positioning, you should set realistic competitive benchmarks. Look at institutions with a similar rank: similar budgets, recognition as well as reputation. This can lead to a higher validity within your competitor analysis, as you include more controlled variables.  

Achieve a good mix of macro and micro analysis factors 

Narrowing down on your competitor list is vital for an efficient analysis to take place. For preliminary research,  a SWOT, DESTEP/STEP framework is recommended. In this initial macro stage of evaluating the competitive environment, it is important to fully understand the landscape, marking any upcoming threats or discovering new opportunities that your institution can take advantage of.  

The final step is to locate and investigate individual variables that are tailored to specific university needs. These are then set off against other close competitors on a “course” level. Your micro-level analysis can validate assumptions that you have drawn from your macro analysis.

Studyportals helps identify competing programmes based on unique sessions in which visitors interacted with different programmes and can investigate the comparison of fees, duration and more.

Get in touch if you are interested in finding out more about how to benchmark your institution against your competitors. 

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