Leader: Soul path to course corrections

In a reformed sector, marketers should play a role in the creation of degrees - but academics must remain in charge of the process

December 8, 2011

The cat is out of the bag. The caricature of the aloof, self-indulgent academic moulding "vanity courses" based on their self-interest, irrespective of what students want or need, seems to have a kernel of truth.

We report figures this week from a study showing that close to a quarter of new courses launched over a three-year period failed to get a single application. New joint-honours degrees fared worst, with half ignored by applicants. Thousands of failed courses, with start-up costs put at about £20,000 each, represent a serious waste of cash.

There are some obvious things that must be done in light of the findings of i-Map (Innovation in the Market Assurance of New Programmes). Universities need sturdier mechanisms to prevent bad ideas getting off the ground and more appreciation of the waste involved when courses don't take off.

Crucially, market research has to be better employed - but that does not mean prostration before all-powerful marketing gurus: that would be disastrous.

The figures from the study cover 2005 to 2008. The project team reports that universities are now "taking a much more strategic and market-led approach". Indeed, the latest Universities and Colleges Admissions Service data show a significant rationalisation, with the total number of courses on offer for 2012-13 entry down to 38,763 from more than 40,0 the previous year.

This is sensible: with the higher education White Paper "putting students at the heart of the system" and opening up 85,000 university places to competition, a more "market-led" approach is inescapable.

But although there is a vital role for the marketers to play, there are dangers if the sector becomes too beholden to them.

Slavish subservience to marketing data would stifle creativity and risk-taking, while also killing off good courses with bad ones.

As broadcaster Simon Fanshawe, chair of council at the University of Sussex, put it in his address to the Association of University Administrators last week: "If we follow the market we drift into homogeneity...we will all end up doing business and law...and we'll lose that which makes us really great - our soul."

Marketing and PR do have big roles to play in the coalition's brave new world - not in dictating course portfolios, but in making the case for the wonders of the sector as a whole, as well as courses that may not provide instant gratification on student-satisfaction surveys, but may change lives.

"You all know that if you dig deep into the institutions you work for, you know they have a soul," Mr Fanshawe said.

"You've got to put that right at the front of what you present. Tell that story, make it distinctive. Create the market for what you offer."

But the marketing industry must retain a supporting role in all this. It should apply its expertise to advise on courses to ensure student take-up, avoid waste and professionalise the process of course creation - but advice is as far as it should go.

Academics - not marketers - are the ones at the forefront of knowledge. Just as the coalition envisages putting students at the heart of the system, scholars are the soul of the university. They must remain so, and the academy's offerings should reflect this fact.

phil.baty@tsleducation.com.

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