Don't lose head over mad men

Advertising and branding matter more than ever, but universities already have what every business wants

February 7, 2013

The trouble with Oxbridge?” queried the headline stretching across a full page of a national newspaper last weekend.

This was not, however, a news article or editorial exploring such perennial topics as social engineering or the behaviour of a privileged elite. Rather, it was an advertisement from the New College of the Humanities, which concluded that the problem was “there’s just not enough of it” to go round.

The advert pitching the £18,000-a-year private college to Oxbridge also- rans is a striking example of something that may become increasingly familiar.

This week we report on a 22 per cent rise in the sums spent by universities on direct marketing to students in 2011-12, with many planning to increase this further.

The shift mirrors what has happened in the US, particularly in the for- profit sector.

In England, marketing to and competition for students are now far more pressing concerns than they once were

According to a recent estimate reported by Reuters, the for-profit University of Phoenix, whose owner Apollo Group also controls BPP University College in the UK, was at one point spending nearly $400,000 (£254,000) a day on online adverts targeted at students. Apollo said the estimate was “gross speculation”.

Reuters added that other for-profit operators including Kaplan, DeVry and ITT Educational Services were also among Google’s 25 biggest advertisers.

Trace Urdan, senior analyst at Wells Fargo Securities, told the news agency: “I have witnessed several versions of this cycle but none as extreme as this…We are going to see more pointed efforts at marketing and more price competition in an effort to try to capture more market share both from each other as well as from traditional schools.”

There is little doubt that as far as universities in England are concerned, marketing to and competition for students are now far more pressing concerns than they once were.

A quick glance at the dramatic shifts in recruitment patterns last year tells the story (and it is worth pointing out that any peaks came at the expense of others’ troughs).

The vice-chancellor of one Russell Group university confided that his institution had simply not anticipated the rapid impact of the government’s reforms, and had almost expected “business as usual” - a mistake he would not be making again.

Writing in this week’s Times Higher Education, however, Liam Burns, president of the National Union of Students, raises concerns that the focus on recruitment, marketing and new buildings is coming at the expense of universities’ core propositions: teaching, academic support and student services.

For Burns, this highlights the hollowness of the “customer is king” mantra, and any institution that goes too far down this path will surely get its fingers burned.

Students, after all, are not “customers” in any normal sense of the word: they are committing their formative years to an institution, and in the end quality will out.

The most successful businesses insist that they have at their heart a philosophy, a commitment to doing things a certain way, with everything else flowing from that. If it is a lesson that some businesses have learned, it is one that universities and their staff have long lived and breathed. We must not lose sight of those values.

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