Make scholars see the value of marketing? It's a hard sell

Report says academic attitudes stymie efforts to build university brands. John Gill reports

August 21, 2008

A "cultural clash" between academia and business is preventing marketing from fulfilling its potential in higher education, a new report suggests.

The study, What Vice-chancellors Really Think about Marketing, sets out the difficulties university marketing managers face as they attempt to fully exploit opportunities in a sector that still harbours suspicion of the commercial world.

The analysis, conducted by the education marketing consultancy Callen Associates, is based on interviews with ten vice-chancellors and one deputy vice-chancellor at universities across the sector, including large and small, old and new, research-intensive and teaching-led.

While the report finds much to be positive about, it says that academic-centric structures, an unwillingness to devote stretched resources and "continuing discomfort in integrating academic and business cultures" remain stumbling blocks for marketing in the sector.

A primary finding is that vice-chancellors, who are an increasingly business-oriented breed, appreciate what marketing can do and the role it can play in developing university strategy.

However, only half of those taking part in the study were content with their institution's marketing activity - academic attitudes were a frequently cited barrier.

As one put it: "Academic colleagues have particular and different views (from marketing departments) that may need to be addressed, and they may also be right, in their way."

Despite such attitudes being entrenched, vice-chancellors' responses were peppered with language more common to marketing executives than academics, such as references to "consumers", "customer service" and "stakeholders".

Several of those questioned agreed that there was a "growing keenness" for marketing in the sector, but the report says that despite this enthusiasm, in key areas such as market research there are "untested preconceptions of the limitations of its value and impact".

This, it says, can cause marketing activity to suffer as it is branded "high priority in principle but low priority for resources".

The analysis concludes that marketing, although a relatively new focus for universities, has progressed a long way from simple promotional work to complex brand activity in higher education.

The report's recommendations are not all aimed at convincing academics of the wonders of the discipline - marketing executives too are urged to reconsider their role.

The traditional "4P" marketing model - which bases activity around the considerations of price, place, product and promotion - should be replaced by a new model tailored to higher education's needs, it suggests.

The authors conclude: "Marketers need to demonstrate an understanding and empathy for both education generically and the development, rather than degradation, of the values of their institutions."

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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