Marketing is now par for the course

Programmes must appeal to students, not the vanity of academics, says PR head. David Matthews writes

July 21, 2011

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Chattering classes: Researchers 'should be taught how to talk to journalists'

University marketing departments should play a bigger part in deciding which courses are offered to students, a senior public relations expert has said.

Peter Reader, director of marketing and communications at the University of Portsmouth, said marketing staff needed to make sure that there was demand for new programmes to avoid the creation of "vanity courses" by academics.

"If you are going to take a course to market that will be successful, you need to know there are (enough interested students)," he said.

As well as using data from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, Mr Reader said many universities now used focus groups to gauge the popularity of new courses.

He questioned whether some programmes were "vanity courses", and said some master's degrees were created to satisfy the interests of academics but ended up attracting small numbers of students.

"That a particular member of staff has an interest is not a reason for that course. Many (courses) have gone on to fail," he said.

Mr Reader also suggested that marketing departments should play a greater role in branding courses. "The academic world is full of jargon and one of our tasks is to make sure what we mean is understood outside the university," he said.

However, he insisted that his aim was not to cut courses just because they were unpopular, adding: "Universities need to have a comprehensive programme."

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said the development of courses should be a "long-term not a short-term process. Courses should be determined by academic rigour, not marketing fads."

In an article published in Perspectives, the journal of the Association of University Administrators, Mr Reader says that marketing staff now require "open and sometimes immediate access to the head of the institution" and are "advising on everything from the tone of messages to course-portfolio management".

He told Times Higher Education that media training for academics was the norm in an era when communicating with the public was of fundamental importance.

He admitted there was a danger that "something gets lost" when researchers talk to journalists about their findings, but pointed out that research reached far more people through newspapers than through scholarly journals.

Ms Hunt acknowledged that communicating research to the public was important, but said that if "academics need to go on media training courses, then there is definitely a case for some science reporters to be sent on basic science courses".

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