We should concentrate on offering good degrees, not on hyping bad ones, argues Roy Newson
What do the following have in common: a student successfully suing his university over misleading claims; universities brought to book over advertising on salacious websites; the annual promotional binge that is clearing? Answer: an ambivalent attitude towards customers and service.
On the one hand, higher education claims to espouse the values of scholarship and concern for the human condition; on the other, it offers a level of customer service that would embarrass a motorway service station. Yet many academics see no contradiction in this. In fact, they are the first to denigrate customer satisfaction processes as superficial, exploitative and self-serving.
Indeed, in universities, popularity seems to be inversely proportional to the perceived need for good customer service. Go to an open day at an institution at the bottom of the applications league table and you will see the first nervous shoots of a customer culture: staff will be friendly; admissions tutors will even be nice to you. Go to an institution with no worries about recruitment and the atmosphere is much like what the average bullock experiences at market. Lots of being herded around, then cooped up for a long while before the moment of glory in the show ring that is the tutor's office. I would like to think this is part of the British attitude that cold showers and abuse are character-building, but it is more likely due to a mixture of arrogance and autistic communication.
Look at how higher education promotes itself. Most large companies - and the average university - turn over more than £75 million a year. Commercial business generally understands that you cannot sell what people don't want to buy, and if you don't treat your customers right you won't have any. Part of addressing the latter is to build trust, which means offering an accurate description of what is being supplied.
What happens if we haven't got the best student facilities? Are we downhearted? No. We say that we do. After all, the students won't know until they arrive, will they?
Instead of being criticised by their employers for producing hype that is hopelessly optimistic, marketers are more likely to be berated if they don't talk up their institutions. And woe betide the university PR manager if some less-than-positive story hits the press. "It is your job," they are told, "to keep bad news out of the papers." No it isn't. It is your job, university senior manager, to run an organisation in which the bad news doesn't happen.
You cannot lie or gimmick your way out of trouble. Yet much of higher education still has the self-satisfied and conceited view that if only people knew about this wonderful nuclear engineering course, they would positively flock to sign up. And how do we let people know? Easy, by means of free keyrings, blow-up dolls and dodgy websites. The idea that a student will be influenced to spend three years and several thousand pounds because an institution gave him or her a free lollipop frankly beggars belief.
Yet, over the clearing weeks, universities and colleges will spend about £4 million on advertising, an expenditure that will not be based on customer-oriented objectives, key satisfaction opportunities or a realistic analysis of institutions' capabilities, but on telling us that University X offers nothing short of Elysian fields for anyone who cares to apply.
I, for one, welcome the success of the misrepresentation case and the clamour about universities advertising on questionable websites. Hopefully they will persuade those who run and fund higher education that greater customer focus offers the key to long-term performance.
Roy Newson is marketing director of Anglia Polytechnic University.