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.

Why applying to Oxbridge shouldn’t be scary

Speaking in The Guardian, Mary O’Hara looks at applying to Oxbridge:

“Twenty years on from my graduation, it is upsetting that many of the barriers my generation faced are so prevalent for poorer youngsters today; that they are still so underrepresented in our top universities, and that those from privileged backgrounds retain their stranglehold on the professions. Just 7% of children are privately educated, yet they account for more than half of top doctors, judges and barristers.”

Oxford and Cambridge both conduct extensive outreach programmes, yet great difficulties remain in setting a more reasonable balance.

Nevertheless, the work goes on for staff at Oxbridge and they continue to face the challenge head-on. In most circumstances, it’s not for want of trying… Outreach is important; Oxbridge want to hear from engaged minds, no matter what their background and situation in life.

photo by deadstar 2.1

photo by deadstar 2.1

University College Oxford (also known as ‘Univ’) produces an Alternative Prospectus to help dispel fears and break down some of the barriers that exist for some students who would otherwise find a great place waiting for them. The guide, written and produced by current students, aims to give prospective students an idea of life at the college. It recently reached the finals of the Higher Education Liaison Officers’ Association (HELOA) Innovation and Best practice Awards 2010-11.

Anne-Marie Canning, Access Officer at Univ, kindly took some time out of her super busy outreach schedule to talk with me about the success of the Alternative Prospectus:

What first prompted you to design an ‘alternative’ to what was already on offer?

AMC: Alternative prospectuses are a bit of an Oxford tradition. Written by students for students they’ve been running for a few years. We’d had one at Univ for the past few years and we realized we kept running out of them before we ran out of our ‘normal’ prospectus. So we decided to reduce expenditure on our traditional formal prospectus and spend a little bit more on the alternative version. The alternative prospectus gives students more freedom to produce something really exciting. The students were really key in setting out what sort of publication they wanted to produce and we worked with a really imaginative designer to facilitate the project.

The alternative prospectus has a great feel as a newspaper. But how do you push the alternative side to those who prefer a more digital flavour?

AMC: We do have a PDF version of the alt prospectus available and we experimented with an e-reader but we found it to be fairly inaccessible and a bit buggy. You can see the new PDF is treated in a way that gives it an newspaper look. We also have a cool little tab on our Facebook page that loads up the lo-res PDF once you click it. It’s worth a little gander!

The ‘Univ guide to Oxford’ map is a great idea. Do you have any plans to make it an ongoing, interactive effort that can change and expand over the academic year?

AMC: The guide changes each year and we put a big map in the lodge with loads of pens and pins and people come and pop their favourite place. It’s not live but it does evolve and I really like the idea of keeping things nice and simple and lo-fi. I think on the ground engagement has a lot to be said for it rather than just having a techy solution. It also raised a lot of awareness and interest in the prospectus project amongst the student body. We obviously used lots of online media platforms to generate content though, so I think the answer is to use a mix of the two approaches.

How do current students and academics feel about the work you’re doing? Do you find them jumping in to help the cause?

AMC: I would say work that we’re doing rather than what I’m doing!

Current students drive much of the work we do here in college. Univ was the first college top set up an ambassador scheme which supports over 60 students in visiting schools in their home areas and volunteering on a variety of outreach projects. The ambassador scheme is a collaboration between the College and the Junior Common Room. Students are involved with e-mentoring, video-making, creating their own taster days and volunteer on a regular basis to welcome school groups to University College. But my favourite project is our Roadshow to South Yorkshire – 8 students go up to south Yorkshire and visit as many schools as possible in the space of four days to talk about the application process and what it is like to be a student at Oxford.

I think the fact that our tutors were willing to submit photos of themselves as teenagers for our alternative prospectus shows just how involved they are! Our outreach plans are made in conjunction with fellows of the College. They go and visit schools themselves and are really pivotal in offering a variety of subject taster days and our teachers’ conference and open days.

Is the alternative prospectus a hit with high-performing students who wouldn’t usually consider Oxford?

AMC: The alternative prospectus is enjoyed by all different sorts of applicants. I think giving an honest view from the ground is really appreciated by everyone. This year about 80% of applicants to University College said the alternative prospectus was invaluable in helping them to make their application choices.

Your “What is a tutorial?” page is useful, putting across an important aspect of the learning process at Oxford. How daunting do prospective students find new ways of learning, in your experience?

AMC: The teaching style at Oxford is unique. We don’t want people to apply to Oxford because we’re Oxford. We want people to apply because they love their subject and think the tutorial system would suit their learning style. Yes, it’s challenging but it’s also exhilarating. Here at University College we do a lot to support students in transitioning into university level study. We run a pre-sessional Maths week for all of our students in the sciences and maths subjects to consolidate their knowledge. We also team up 1st years with 2nd and 3rd year students via our study buddy scheme. The study buddies scheme gives first years a friendly face to ask any questions and get some advice related to their studies.

Does any one aspect of the prospectus outshine the others when students are choosing where to apply?

AMC: No, students would like information about all elements of the Oxford experience in my experience. Potential applicants want the full picture!

Higher education is going through a great deal of change right now. What type of changes, if any, do you envisage for future editions of the alternative prospectus?

AMC: I think we’ll respond to what our prospective applicants would like. We love our little newspaper but if people want something different then we’ll respond to their needs!

Finally, do you have any other words of wisdom or reassurance to high-grade students who aren’t entirely sure about applying to an Oxbridge college?

AMC: We’re looking for two things in our students. One is academic achievement and the other is passion for your subject. If you have those two things then give it a go! The only way to ensure you don’t get into Oxford is by not applying to Oxford. And if you don’t get an offer the chances are you’ll be going to another fantastic university (like York, my own university)!

Anne-Marie also told me that Univ have just launched a stop motion tour of the college, so you can get an inside view of the place. I’ll leave you with the tour below. Remember, you saw it here first. 🙂