Conference sparks concern that rush to attract students may override academic criteria. Hannah Fearn reports. Academics must work with their universities' marketing departments to ensure new courses are attractive to prospective students, a conference has heard.
Tim O'Brien, international development director at Nottingham Trent University, warned delegates at the Effective Marketing in Higher Education conference that marketing and public relations professionals must get involved in academic planning at the highest level.
In a move that has added to concerns that academic considerations are being superseded in the sector by shorter-term business needs, he said: "Marketing and communications departments that are not involved in the academic development process have one hand behind their backs because their marketing teams are at the front line in terms of what the students want."
Mr O'Brien said marketing and communications departments must ensure that the planning process took into account college and faculty marketing plans.
Speaking to The Times Higher , he added that marketing professionals working in higher education institutions could provide academics with market research proving the demand for certain study paths. This was particularly important when designing new courses and attracting international students, he said. Such data could also be made available by academic colleagues.
The Nottingham Trent branch of the University and College Union confirmed that academics were concerned that marketing considerations were taking precedence over academic matters.
A branch spokesman said the issue had been debated by its members at the university. "Our members accept that marketing has a role to play in, for example, helping to identify markets and providing information on the best way to reach prospective students," he said. "But they are adamant that courses should be designed and offered on the basis of academic merit and that the content of such courses should never be made subservient to marketing considerations."
Universities have been criticised for giving short-term marketing needs priority in devising new courses.
The proliferation of university degree courses in "forensic science", for example, has been attributed to the popularity of TV shows such as Waking the Dead . But Clive Wolfendale, deputy chief constable of North Wales Police, told a committee of MPs in 2005 that the degrees were "a savage waste of young people's time and parents' money".
The resulting report by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, Forensic Science on Trial , found that 401 university courses had "forensic" in the title but warned that many offered little practical benefit to those hoping for a career in the field. The MPs warned that some 3,000 forensic science undergraduates were set to compete for jobs in an industry with a total workforce about 5,000.
Sally Hunt, the UCU general secretary, said: "Too many institutions seem to be ignoring academics, the very people who understand universities and higher education. Education is about learning and scholarship, not marketing fads. The development of courses should be a long-term process."
Mr O'Brien also warned university marketing professionals that the rise of social networking and blogging around the world meant that students had become "militant", and it was now far more difficult to control an institution's image for current and prospective students. But universities could single out internet users whose comments were having an impact.
"It's only a small number of people who are bothered to blog or even to respond to them," he said. "Not everybody is uploading content, and identifying those who are can help."