HE Marketing: Time to Stand Out, Not Fit In

Marketing is nothing new to universities. Decades ago, before fees and loans were on the table, money was being spent on how an institution looked to potential students and stakeholders.

Whether or not students consider themselves as consumers, the higher education sector is aware that appearance is important. Marketing will remain and will likely grow in terms of both use and cost. At the Warwick Higher Education Summit on 28 Jan 2012, Professor Bernard Longdon described how American for-profit institutions spend around 25% of their budget on marketing, yet only 10% on teaching. It appears that marketing pays.

photo by Angela Rutherford

Dressed to impress long-term or is it just window dressing? (photo by Angela Rutherford)

Brand realities must trump brand appearance.

The UK isn’t in the same place right now with such high marketing budgets, but I was left wondering about the best way universities can make an impression on applicants. In my eyes, we are in a time when identifying brand realities could help universities stand out far better than merely promoting a glossy and beautiful — and potentially misleading — appearance.

How did you imagine your university to be before you were a student there? Did that image change after you’d started?

We get it. Every university is brilliant. They’re all in the top 10% of universities… Students are happy and smiling, the buildings are marvellous, the surrounding area is beautiful, the atmosphere is delightful, and so on. And so on.

But where are the brand realities? It’s all too easy for brand appearances to take on generic views of excellence, quality and beauty rather than highlighting how one size certainly does not fit all.

Sauntson and Morrish suggest the lack of diverse voice resides even in mission statements, which appear “to be an indefinable kind of ‘branding’ in which concrete purposes and achievements are replaced by a symbolic avowal of the values of business and industry” (p.83). While mission statements are rarely viewed as important from the perspective of applicants, it is a concern that the search for a unique brand may be faltering on a wider scale.

The UK HE sector may require some institutions to specialise more than they currently do. This, in turn, would force a need to point out unique selling points even more urgently. But even if every institution stayed the same, there is already great diversity within the sector. At the Warwick HE Summit, both Sir Richard Lambert and Pam Tatlow agreed that HE doesn’t reside in a single size system. To emphasise the point, Lambert and Tatlow had plenty to disagree over, but not this. Tatlow explained that there is not one model to answer all questions and provide all solutions. In short, there is more than enough room to show true colours without looking out of place.

photo by maistora

Which solution fits you best? (photo by maistora)

Diverse or generic?

The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) recently reported that while the sector appears less diverse than ten or fifteen years ago, any change is relatively minor. As for the future, the HEPI report on institutional diversity warns of major changes “as growing market pressures come to bear on institutions”. In coming years, it will pay to stand out rather than fit in.

How useful, then, is it to be all things to all people?

Institutions have long been in a strangely favourable situation where applicants and those involved in guiding student choices will generally look to official literature as the first port of call. In some cases, the prospectus is left alone in favour of a university’s website or mobile app. Whatever gets chosen, this official marketing and information is consulted a great deal and won’t be ignored any time soon.

Given this, it pays to communicate where each institution is different.

I advise applicants to look beyond the marketing. Students cannot make a fully informed choice on this alone. But while universities continue to hold the attention of applicants at an early stage through their marketing and promotional material, it must help the individual as well as the institution. Pointing out brand realities is a great start. Upon this scaffold, universities can outline their purposes with conviction and everyone should benefit in the process.

University marketing must highlight unique traits and core focuses over a general approach. This will still allow enough room for a diverse set of wants and needs, which is far better than attempting to be an ‘everyman’ figure. Allowing for diversity is not the same as promoting universal appeal.

The Possible Impossibility of Employability…

Let me guess. If you’re a uni student reading this, am I right in thinking you’d like to be employable once you graduate?

It’s probably fair to say the vast majority of students want better job and career choices as a result of their study, even when it’s not their main reason for attending uni.

At a recent Guardian seminar on employability, one question raised was that of responsibility. Who should be ultimately responsible for ensuring people graduate with better chances of employability?

The university? The student? Schools? Employers?

Should it be necessary for anyone to tick a box saying they ensure employability standards of a particular level? Or is the link between students and employability a false trail?

A delicate balance or a false trail? (photo by Kalexanderson)

A delicate balance or a false trail? (photo by Kalexanderson)

There’s no fixed definition of ’employability’. The term isn’t rigid. Either that, or it ends up sounding vague:

“The skills, attributes and knowledge of an individual which affect the likelihood of finding, obtaining and being retained in suitable employment.” [Source]

That definition was a response to a piece by David Winter. Winter followed up with a tough question. How can this likelihood be measured and how can you increase that likelihood?

There is no clear answer. But since employment itself can be measured statistically, we’re not about to see the end of analysing numbers of graduates in work and their various career destinations. Whether the detail can truly indicate individual likelihood of one thing or another is a different matter.

The increased marketisation of higher education means that universities will want to appear successful in having its graduates finding paid work. It means that students will want to attend an institution that can deliver the best rates of employment. And it means that government will want to see figures that demonstrate how amazing certain universities are in educating people where it is necessary.

False trail or not, the situation is geared up to be viewed in terms of life after graduation, even before a place at uni has been secured.

Mario Creatura said in June:

“[Potential students] will undoubtedly start to look for courses that have a proven track record in employability and prestige. HEFCE/UUK/GuildHE’s work on the KIS [Key Information Sets] is testament to this.”

However, vice-chancellor of Oxford Brookes University, Janet Beer recently said, “I am worried about an over-emphasis by students on employability…[students want] employability, but we offer a much richer experience…We must not get sucked into thinking that we are providing some kind of production-line product”.

MIT’s Samuel Jay Keyser shares Janet Beer’s concern:

“During a recent random faculty dinner that I hosted, faculty members from the schools of science and engineering complained about the attitude of present-day students. In their view, all they want to do is just what’s necessary to get through a class. There’s no fire in the belly to get to the bottom of the subject.” [Source]

The sad thing about this is that a fire in the belly would probably be more helpful in the long run.

None of this is really the fault of students though. Neither can you blame universities for not pushing their weight. Instead, it points toward a certain lack of correlation between a degree and employability. Some things can be measured, but that doesn’t mean you can make great sense of it under these conditions.

Unistats now publishes employability statements for universities and explores the employment prospects for graduates.

The statistics are one way for potential students to choose an institution that suits them. However:

  1. It is only a guideline;
  2. There are many other factors to assess when choosing a university.

If employability is a key driver to your choices, it must also be clear that you can do a lot to become more employable without relying on a degree result. In other words, nobody is two-dimensional.

Other matters are also important, including (among approximately a zillion other things…):

  • Relationships and key interactions with others;
  • Extra-curricular activities;
  • Prior experience in your chosen field(s);
  • Examples of going ‘above and beyond’ what’s necessary;
  • Critical assessment/evaluation;
  • Examples of managing projects;
  • Publically visible achievements and/or a portfolio of professional work.

No single attribute will swing open the doors to an all-encompassing employability. Roles are different, personalities are different, everything is different. So how can employability be the same thing to all people and all companies?

A recent Edge Foundation report states:

“While there are variations in the classification of employability, there is a broad understanding of what qualities, characteristics, skills and knowledge constitute employability both in general, and specifically for graduates. Employers expect graduates to have technical and discipline competences from their degrees but require graduates also to demonstrate a range of broader skills and attributes that include team-working, communication, leadership, critical thinking, problem solving and managerial abilities.

“It is arguable that specific definitions are less important than an agreed focus on approaches to promote such transferable skills and fostering attributes that will enable graduates to find appropriate employment, progress in their work and thus facilitate the success of their organisations and contribute to society and the economy.”

It seems that individual roles and careers will carry specific requirements and expectations, while a more general overview appreciates a rounded character.

Much frustration arises because there’s no magic answer for you to explain why you’ve got what a potential employer wants. If there was, we’d all be giving the magic answer. And what would employers do then?

The big take home point here is to understand that your focus on what’s important out of university shouldn’t rely solely on the certificate you get after three or more years. You owe yourself to go beyond that. Your degree isn’t the source of awesome. You are.

Find your brand. Work your brand. Love your brand.

If the degree said it all, your CV would state where you studied, what you studied, and how you were graded. You wouldn’t need anything else.

Hopefully you agree that isn’t the case. 🙂

No matter how vague the term ’employability’ is, you’re not stuck for options. You can still make moves toward improving your lot. Big moves. As big as you want them to be.

You ready? Then take a look through these posts from TheUniversityBlog’s archive. Best of luck to you!