Stand-out marketing

March 27, 2014

I was unsurprised to read about the increase in marketing spend by post-1992 universities (“It’s spend, spend, spend to attract students, but does anyone notice?”, News, 20 March).

Recent research by me and Carol Taylor on the impact of student number controls (soon to be published by the Higher Education Academy) shows that all institutional types are increasing marketing spend, even when they do not expect any direct return on the investment. The key is the perceived need to stand out in the marketplace. When surveyed about institutions’ plans to increase their differentiation from other institutions, almost two-thirds of respondents indicated plans to do so, even though about half expected very little change in terms of attracting more students.

This suggests that enhancing institutional differentiation is a strategic goal in itself. Indeed, course rationalisation was driven largely by concerns about long-term market positioning and arose primarily as the result of choice and competition rather than the core-and-margin number control policy. Some respondents were scathing about the distorting impact of this on the “brand” of an institution. Changing an institution’s brand can threaten the range of courses on offer and damage students’ understanding of what a university is for, making aspects of higher education more vulnerable. Branding can appear like an algorithm of components derived directly from league table algorithms. Surely this is putting the cart before the horse.

Colin McCaig
Sheffield Hallam University

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