Bring them in on your coat-tails

April 1, 2005

You can't start too early or do too much to sign up students for your subject. Harriet Swain dons her free lab coat for a tour of the techniques being used to ensure full courses

For you, chemistry is cool. For your colleague down the corridor, electronic engineering makes life worth living, while over the road is a professor who is happier spending time with Anglo-Saxon burial remains than with his children. Because not everyone will share your passion, you have to know how to sell your subject.

If you want to sell it to potential undergraduates, you have to get them young. Michael Kelly, professor of French at Southampton University and director of the Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies, advises working with schoolchildren well before they reach the sixth form, when they are still making choices about what subjects they want to study.

"Make friends with teachers in your subject at secondary schools," he says.

"The image people have of your subject dates back to when they were at school themselves, and they need to know what has changed."

He also suggests making contact with careers officers, finding out what concerns them and presenting your subject in the way they are most likely to find appealing. The aim should be not only to be a missionary for your subject, but to build more permanent partnerships.

Matthew Almond, admissions tutor for chemistry at Reading University, says this is a slow process in which you might see no result for at least five years.

He says it is important to offer the kind of course students may want to study while not losing sight of the subject you want to promote. For example, forensic science is popular thanks to its prominence in a number of television series, and Reading now offers this as part of its chemistry courses.

Mike Goldstein, non-executive chairman of marketing company Heist, says departments need to identify who they want to attract and devise a course that meets their needs. "Nowadays it is much more about saying: 'What do my customers want? Who am I trying to attract? How can I match my expertise with what they want?'"

Tailoring your spiel to your market is especially important in subjects such as languages or mathematics where there is often a divide between those with a natural gift for the subjects and the majority who find them a struggle. Kelly advises stressing the fun elements and the sense of challenge to those who find your subject easy, while talking about employment prospects to those who find it difficult.

Susan Shaw, professor of marketing at Strathclyde University, says it is useful to enlist the support of a school careers service, which can help potential students see engineering or science in a context that they understand.

It is important to emphasise the practical use of your subject and its relevance to everyday life, says David Reid, spokesman for the Institute of Physics. He suggests marketing subjects as if they were a product. "We are all competing over market share of a fixed number of students," he says.

"All the big companies, such as Mars and Coca-Cola, have techniques for gaining market share. I don't see why the sciences and other academic subjects cannot borrow those techniques."

The institute has recently begun experimenting with viral marketing.

Working with a public relations agency that specialises in seeding bits of information through the internet, it has recently been posting titbits of information about Einstein Year on to youth chatrooms. It is also collaborating on a computer game.

Reid says you cannot expect your market of 14-year-olds to come to you.

Instead, you have to find out where they gather and establish a presence at events they attend. To this end, the institute has become involved in urban sports, although Reid warns that you should avoid the temptation to start teaching physics at such events. "Just get them slightly interested," he says. "Engage them rather than trying to preach to them."

Goldstein says employing a professional marketing company such as Heist is a useful way of picking up practices used in other sectors, although this can be done only at the level of a university or professional body. At lower levels, departments and individual academics should concentrate on ensuring that they do not lose contact with anyone who has expressed an interest in their subject - writing to ask if they need more help, sending reminders about when forms must be filled in and so on.

Almond says it is worth taking time to think about how a subject and department is presented in brochures and on open days. "Every department has some staff who find that sort of thing easier than others," he says.

"You have to make sure that those people have a prominent position on the day."

And you should not be too dismissive of freebies. Almond says that students always say on questionnaires that these do not influence their choice, but he suspects this may be because they feel they ought to say that. Reading offers Oxford University Press primers, a free lab coat and glasses, as well as bursaries for some students who are accepted on to their science courses.

"The problem is that you are dealing with individuals," he says. "One person will be attracted because the science looks good, another will be attracted because one of the staff seemed friendly, another might like the band that is coming to play at the student union."

More information: www.heist.co.uk - Heist, specialist marketing services agency focusing on higher education www.iop.org  - Institute of Physics www.lang.ltsn.ac.uk/index.aspx - Subject Centrefor Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies

TOP TIPS

* Remember that no one is ever too young to start learning about your subject

* Get teachers and school careers officers on your side

* Identify your market and what its interests are

* Be proactive and reactive

* Copy marketing techniques from outside higher education

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