Back a brand and earn as you learn

January 21, 2005

Undergraduates can grab a share of a £10 billion market by exploiting their student status, reports Harriet Swain.

Every month, 18-year-old Andrea receives £70 for a couple of hours, work. Last summer, a group of Bristol undergraduates earned £250 each in a week that involved dedicated socialising. Polly made £1,000 plus perks in two terms while studying for her finals. The jobs involved are very different but all demand that employees have one important qualification - that they are students.

While students have become increasingly preoccupied with money thanks to tuition fees and growing debts, student status has acquired commercial value. Many are realising that what they like and how they think is of interest to all kinds of people, some of whom are prepared to pay for their thoughts.

The bottom line is that companies cannot afford to ignore the student market when close to 50 per cent of the age cohort is participating in some form of higher education. And nor can policymakers. Both need articulate student representatives to tell them what this market is like and what it is likely to want in future.

The same is true for universities. Now that students must pay for their experience, they expect to be treated as customers. One of the few ways of finding out how to attract new customers is to discover what existing ones like and dislike about their experience. Another is to ensure that they pass on good impressions of their university.

Finally, the Government is keen to argue the economic value of a degree to the individual, and tomorrow's graduates are today's students. Learn what persuades them to part with their money now, and you could have easier access to their wallets when there's something in them.

Not that all students are badly off. As a whole, they spend about £10 billion a year in the UK, and by no means all of it on baked beans. They make decisions constantly about what to buy, from deodorant and drink to mobile phones.

Hence the success of "brand managers" - students employed to promote particular products to their peers on campus. The idea was developed by the marketing company Get Real in 1997 to promote Red Bull, then a product on its way out, and has since been taken up directly by individual companies, as well as by other marketing firms. Student brand managers may be asked regularly to wear T-shirts bearing the logo of a particular brand, put up posters and distribute leaflets advertising it, come up with promotion ideas or organise a marketing event. The important thing is that they know how students live - which sections of wall are likely to catch their eye most often, what the rules their university has about flyposting, what kind of sell is likely to work.

Kate Kirkham, director of Get Real, which now supplies student brand managers to organisations ranging from Greenpeace to Jack Daniels, says the idea of students as anticapitalist idealists is mistaken. She says that this generation of students has disposable income and is spending it. "They want to be seen in the right clothes, have the right things. Brands have really realised that it's a market they can't ignore."

Students enjoy the job because they get paid (about £6 an hour for a maximum eight-hour week, plus perks), because it looks good on a CV and because they may even get a job out of it.

Polly Atherton, who graduated from Leeds University last June with a degree in management, earned £500 a term working as a brand manager for Jack Daniels. She says: "It was a way of applying what I was learning to practical use and it was a brilliant way of making money. I didn't have to work late at night in bars and I could fit it in with my studies." She didn't mind putting her name to a product - she didn't think much about it in fact. "I didn't do any amateur dramatics and I wasn't sporty so it is something to have on my CV that sets me apart." She now works in marketing.

Jackie Spence, an account manager for Get Real, says that the brand manager idea has taken off partly because students are becoming much more savvy about marketing techniques and companies need to become more sophisticated in response, and partly because students are so difficult to reach.

Similar thinking lay behind The Student Panel, started last year as a way of polling students and passing on their opinions to clients, including universities. "Students are a growing market," says Ben Marks, founder of Opinionpanel (COR) Research, which operates The Student Panel. "They are also early adopters and opinion leaders and are likely to take on innovations." But it is notoriously hard to find out what they think. "They have long holidays, strange working hours and are at so many different institutions," he says. "Anyone who wants to run research for a representative group of students will struggle."

Like other pollsters, such as Mori, Student Panel has found universities particularly keen on finding out what motivates students in their own and other universities.

The financial rewards for participants aren't spectacular - a £25 Amazon gift certificate on completion of between ten and 15 questionnaires.

Instead, "the real sell is that your opinion counts", Marks says.

A handful of students have capitalised on this more directly - and more lucratively - by giving their opinions at greater length in newspapers. Andrea Witcombe, a first-year agriculture student at Plymouth University, has been writing a monthly column in Farmers Weekly since further education college. The column talks about her experiences as a student, from lectures to social life. Her friends compete to appear in it, she says. "They love the publicity." And at £70 for about 500 words, the money is invaluable. "I catch the train home most weekends, so that's what the money is used for."

Other students are earning money through more mundane forms of writing.

Many universities now employ students as note-takers for their disabled peers. Sarah Warm, disability adviser at Plymouth, says the aim is to recruit people in the same department and of similar background to those they will be helping so they have an appreciation of the subject.

Note-takers are paid £8.44 an hour, financed through the Disabled Students Allowance, and most receive training. "We have quite a lot of interest from people wanting to work," she says. "People are often more interested in doing this than bar work."

The same is true of students used by universities as fundraisers. Their job is to cold-call alumni and try to persuade them to support their former institution. They are usually matched with the alumnus in terms of degree subject and/or career aims and encouraged to chat about their experiences of university to spark fond memories and a desire to keep the old place going. The rate is about £6 an hour and students work up to four evenings a week. It is worth every penny, according to Rosie Dale, head of annual giving at Bristol University. The university recently raised £300,000, and the alumni calls played a major part. "For a lot of people it is their first gift," she says. "They build a relationship and it starts them giving."

While one group of undergraduates is tackling alumni, another is likely to be chatting up prospective successors. Bristol, like other institutions, recruits students as "ambassadors" to encourage schoolchildren to apply there. Ambassadors are paid £6.25 an hour for duties that range from leading tours of the campus to talking to school groups and acting as mentors. They put in about six hours a week, although those taking part in the week-long summer schools, on call 24 hours a day, are paid £250.

"We are able to run our widening participation events only because students are prepared to work on them," says Lucy Collins, schools liaison officer for widening participation at Bristol. "What schoolchildren want to see is real students."

This hive of activity sounds good for everyone - companies, universities and students. But there may be a downside after all, warns Claire Callender, professor of social policy at London South Bank University.

Recent unpublished research that she has carried out for Universities UK shows that any form of student term-time employment has a negative impact on degree result. While she concedes that some jobs may be helpful from a career point of view, and that the impact is less the fewer hours are worked, this does not alter the overall findings.

There is also a deeper point, she suggests. If students are encouraged to see themselves as commercially useful, it may undermine the traditional view of a university being there to impart knowledge. "It depends whether you think commercial values conflict with knowledge for knowledge's sake," she says. "I think they may do."

But none of this seems to bother the students. Constantly told that they will be able to exploit their degree financially in the future, the attitude for many is why wait?

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