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.

Providing information, advice and guidance to students

My previous post asked if you were taking too many study risks.

Arthur made a great point in the comments:

“The focus on your education should be increasing your capabilities, not getting through a series of assessment tasks. If you bought a car that did not have wheels, you would feel ripped off. So why buy an education without capabilities?”

No matter how aware you are of increasing capabilities, how can universities help you increase them further in a changing world?

image by rild

image by rild

Yesterday, Aaron Porter, President of NUS, spoke about the type of information, advice and guidance students need in order to develop talent and make the most of their time at university.  Speaking at the Graduate Talent conference on Innovation and Skills for Competitiveness, he gave a similar analogy to Arthur’s.

Porter said that if you buy a bike and the chain falls off after five minutes, you’d get a refund because the goods are faulty.  While he understood the massive difference between high street transactions and entering higher education, he still saw the need for an increasing recognition of how students perceive HE and the need for those students to have the right tools throughout their education.

That, he explained, is why information, advice and guidance needs to be properly targeted at the point of application, and that individuals are made aware of the differences in curriculum and community in different institutions.

You may be in the position to assess risk in terms of study, but what about ongoing?  What can a university do to help you minimise risks after you graduate?  And how can they help you minimise risks in terms of what you study and how you use your time at uni?

Porter covered a lot of ground in today’s talk and made a number of important points.  Here are the main details covered in his talk:

  • Students will begin to change the way they engage with institutions. More students will actively ask “What can I do to guarantee employment?”
  • So much information is available, but it’s hard to navigate through it all.  How can the relevant information be provided to students in an easy to digest fashion?
  • Student background makes a difference in how easily individuals can navigate information.  Must address a diverse community, so nobody is left behind or left wanting.
  • League tables are used to choose where to study, but not always with real understanding of what those tables mean & how to see the big differences between institutions.
  • Students won’t dust down a strategic report on what employers want from graduates.  As good as the advice may be, there is still a need to put the detail forward in a way that students *will* access it.
  • How often during induction are students actually asked what the purpose of HE is, told how it is different to what learning has come before, and asked what they personally want out of HE?  Helping students to focus on these critical issues will make a huge difference to their experience and understanding.  Ask critical questions at the start to earlier allow students to prepare better.
  • Need to think about better integrating employability and careers into curriculum and teaching.  Students now expect this, so let’s deliver.
  • Higher Education Achievement Report (HEAR) needs rolling out quickly to make a level playing field for students.  Beef up academic achievement and its detail, while also highlighting achievement outside the classroom.
  • Drawing out this information through HEAR will help graduates articulate their achievements and skills.  In turn, job applications can be better targeted by graduates, as they can sell themselves more accurately.
  • All students should feel able to participate in extra-curricular activities, whatever their background.
  • Work exp. & internships need to become almost an entitlement, especially with fees about to climb.
  • Way in which we communicate information needs to be more innovative in terms of social media.  On campus and off campus, are institutions operating in the same environments as students?  Careers information is perfect territory to take on social media, because it’s not likely to be seen as a personal intrusion.
  • National measure of employment needs to go beyond a 6-month view.  1 year, 3 years, 5 years, etc.  Students need to know, because education costs are growing and employability is a big deal.
  • There is a danger that learning for its own sake may be lost.  Could be an adverse impact on which skills students learn before graduation.
  • Browne didn’t crack the problem of getting an entirely flexible HE system.  The opportunity was there, but hasn’t been addressed.  We must, therefore, still think about how we can address the issues.  This is critical in allowing students to get the employment skills they need.
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