Bushels: avoid. Lights: turn up

September 3, 1999

Andrew Oswald argues that if British universities want to earn a bit more they should shout a bit louder

Britain's universities are almost invisible. The average Briton reads and hears nothing about them. I believe our reticence to publicise what we do holds back higher education and threatens our future funding.

Naturally enough, British voters are unwilling to fund unfamiliar students they rarely see mentioned. Why should they? Yet few universities generate any media coverage.

The following were the most cited UK universities in a national broadsheet newspaper over a 12-month period:

London Business School 157

Oxford University 152

London School of

Economics 124

Cambridge University 107

Warwick University 57

University College London 54

Imperial College 52

Nottingham University 43

Bristol University 30

Edinburgh University

Below this, numbers quickly fall towards zero. The bulk of the country's universities get two or three mentions in each daily newspaper in a whole year.

Few academics think about publicity. Unfortunately, most university teachers of my age were taught to look down on the media. One of my friends continues to refuse to talk to journalists if they telephone him. He is fond of saying things like "Do you think that any publicity is good publicity?". The answer to his question is probably no. But I am tempted to reply "Do you think that the taxpayer will continue to pay for you to do what you enjoy if that taxpayer views it as irrelevant rubbish?"

To survive, our universities will have to enter the year 2000 with a different attitude. This is not merely because we live in a world of publicly funded universities. Once privatisation happens,

as seems inevitable in some form, publicity will assume still more importance. Then the laws of

the market-place will rule.

It is unsurprising to discover that the London Business School generates more mentions in the above table than any other institution. I imagine it is hardly accidental. Publicity is the oxygen of a business school - MBA fees are expensive and people will not pay if they think the institution has no public reputation. That partly determines their own chance of career promotion.

When undergraduates pay realistic fees, they will expect the same. If the students I speak to are anything to go by, they already place a great weight on hearing their university quoted. The world is changing and advertising works.

Andrew Oswald is professor of

economics, University of Warwick.

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