Tested in supermarkets, now at a university near you

January 9, 2004

How can the University of the M25 attract more students? pondered the bigwigs at the Christmas bash. Offer them a bargain, of course. Ted Prince reports

Who am I? What am I for?" The vice-chancellor had that glassy look in his eye, which you don't usually see until he's been at the whiskey chasers during the Christmas party.

"What are you talking about?" said Nick McVelly, our resident spinmeister.

"I'm a university looking in the mirror. What do I see?"

"North of six figures in your pay packet, outside chance of a gong and pole position in the staff car park - that's what you see in the mirror," said McVelly sourly.

"No, I'm not talking about me, I'm talking about all of us. What does the University of the M25 look like? And there's a reason I'm asking these questions. Tuition fees. It's not about money, it's about identity."

The vice-chancellor is obsessing about fees and he has to be handled very carefully. A few weeks ago, McVelly caught him trying to fire off a letter to The Times about the importance of defending the equality of status of "emerging" universities.

"It's all about positioning and branding. Those are the big questions for anyone serious about higher education," McVelly said.

"Well, as I see it, we have to stay in the same game as the big boys. We're a multi-campus institution with plenty of overseas appeal. How's that any different from Cambridge?"

The vice-chancellor has never really seemed at home in the world of the new universities. He made a point of getting MA Cantab on his nameplate on his office door - but I've heard students asking what's so clever about having a degree from Kent.

"If we're selling places, we need to know what kind of shop we think we're running. If we charge the same fees as upmarket universities, students are going to say we're overpriced. If we charge any less, they're going to say, 'Who wants a degree from the University of Poundstretcher?'" McVelly said.

"So we lose out either way?" the v-c said.

"No. We need to have an identity that doesn't depend on price. When people talk about the University of the M25, they need to have something distinctive to remember."

"I've often thought that if I had a higher public profile... " said the vice-chancellor, puffing out his chest.

"Ted has already vetoed that idea, and he can be very stubborn," said McVelly, with a sidestep that would impress Jonny Wilkinson.

When we got back to the Image Factory, as McVelly calls our office, he was still working hard on the identity question.

"How can we be remembered?"

"How about a catchphrase? Nice to teach you, to teach you, nice."

"Good concept. But they'd never accept the word 'teach'."

"How about a special offer? Or a mystery prize? Accept a place with us and you could win a Renault Clio. I can imagine the postman straining beneath the weight of the extra applications."

"It would have to be a Volvo. It sounds more academic. But we couldn't afford that kind of promotion."

"We have to show people that even though we might be charging less, we're giving more," I said, turning around the ideas the way the vice-chancellor plays with his Rubik's Cube during budget meetings.

"Exactly. I think I've got it." McVelly had that Messianic stare. "It will offer students more and it won't cost us anything. They can pay lower fees but take twice as much away."

"What is it?" I shouted.

"Buy One, Get One Free. They study for one degree and, at graduation, we throw in another. Think about it. For engineering students - and they're rare enough already - we could give them a heritage management degree as a freebie. Chemistry students could have another degree in dance science.

"Wouldn't hurt anyone, wouldn't cost us anything. They get two photos in the big hats. Extra letters after their name. Oxford has been doing it with their MAs for years. It's offering genuine value."

"I buy it," I said to McVelly, my voice husky with emotion. "I buy it."

Email your PR problems to ted.prince@thes.co.uk

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