Gloom trimming for job adverts

July 7, 1995

There is a growing literature on the marketing of higher education in general, and individual universities and colleges in particular.

It is another side of the "higher education as business" thesis which dominates so much discussion around and within the sector.

Rarely a day goes by without some flyer advertising another conference on marketing higher education; promoting another book (or CD-ROM) on universities, which, if you do not pay a contribution to, you will be doomed; another marketing consultancy offering "professional advice" at exorbitant cost.

Irritating as much of this is, at least it can be shredded and sent to the local primary school as bedding for the hamsters.

What is more insidious and dangerous is the increasing trend towards "advertorials", which seem to be the stuff of some education features in the national media.

At the moment the focus is on graduate and diplomate unemployment or under-employment. There is a set of real issues around the paucity of opportunities for final- year students that need to be addressed urgently. With their increasing indebtedness, matched only by the decreasing opportunities for paid jobs that utilise their higher education, many students face bleak employment, let alone career, prospects.

But many of the features that discuss these issues are to be found on the "recruitment" pages, which carry increasing amounts of advertising for job opportunities. Or they are wrapped around expensive advertising associated with "graduate fairs" and careers conventions.

All of this will change shortly. When we hit the A-level results in August, the media will be full of stories about too many students chasing too few places. Features will be written and used to sell pages and pages of expensive advertising space. More than Pounds 3 million will be spent across the sector buying up this space. Then in mid-September, it will all be turned around again. The focus will be on over-provision of places, too few students, spare capacity, etc.

A period of relative calm will last until the spring, when the graduate unemployment features will start up again, and the hard sell of related advertising will begin.

Marketing higher education is itself a big industry. Each major advertising agency now has a higher education section.

Institutions are spending more and more on advertising and marketing themselves. The costs are spiralling at a time when institutions are severely stretched financially.

Higher education is inevitably in a contradictory position. It is in our interests to generate media attention. We need to be making the argument that the country needs sustained investment in higher education and to address how this should be financed.

The final report of the National Commission on Education provides a clear agenda. The work of the commission has been a highlight of recent policy approaches to the future of higher education.

The questions raised, and the answers suggested, are not always comfortable, but we will have to address them if we are to move beyond the short-termism of much of the existing debate. Quite properly we shall engage in such discussions with as wide an audience as possible.

But we must also be wary. Higher education may be a big business. But the cynical use of "advertorials" to sell newspapers and the spaces within them should not be the business of higher education.

Mike Fitzgerald is vice chancellor of Thames Valley University.

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