Universities again increased their spending on marketing to prospective students in 2012-13 even though undergraduate application numbers remained lower than before £9,000 fees were introduced, figures obtained by Times Higher Education show.
Seventy institutions that responded to a Freedom of Information request collectively spent more than £36 million on student marketing in 2012-13, a rise of 14.7 per cent on 2011-12 and 33 per cent on 2010-11. New universities saw some of the biggest rises in marketing spend during the period.
The University of Bedfordshire, which urges students in its latest advertising campaign to “Begin, Build, Believe”, increased spending on marketing for new students by 368 per cent between 2010-11 and 2012-13, with just over £900,000 spent last year.
Despite this, applications to undertake undergraduate study at the university in 2013 were down 14.8 per cent on the previous year.
A Bedfordshire spokesman said the university had carried out “little marketing activity” before 2011 and was “now engaging in marketing at a more realistic and appropriate level”.
“The university’s expenditure on marketing is now roughly on a par with other comparative universities, when looking at marketing spend as a proportion of income,” he said.
Anglia Ruskin University also saw a significant rise in such marketing expenditure, spending £1.76 million in 2012-13, about £1 million more than in 2010-11. Its applications rose 1.5 per cent in 2013.
A spokesman for the university said the figures reflected “all marketing activity and brand awareness” across the institution. “Undergraduate recruitment is only part of this,” he added.
It had also been “extremely busy” over the past couple of years with projects such as its new Peterborough campus that “require some degree of marketing”.
The University of Chichester more than doubled its expenditure on non-staff marketing, including for student recruitment, in three years, rising from £48,000 in 2010-11 to £103,000 in 2012-13. Its applications rose 5.8 per cent in 2013, but were still below pre-2012 levels.
A spokeswoman said marketing spending fluctuated greatly from year to year, as it included recruitment campaigns aimed at non-EU as well as domestic and EU students.
Meanwhile, the University of Hertfordshire saw the biggest increase in a single year, spending £290,000 on advertising aimed at students in 2012-13, up from £89,000 in 2011-12. Hertfordshire experienced a fall of 2 per cent in the number of applications in 2013.
A spokesman stated that the increase was the result of a regional campaign that the university embarks on every few years.
The period covered by the FoI figures was a turbulent one for undergraduate applications. In the 2013 cycle, 466,194 people from England and Wales applied to UK universities, which was a 2.7 per cent increase on the previous year but still 7.2 per cent down on applicant numbers in 2011, the last year before tuition fees were raised to £9,000.
Commenting on THE’s figures, Roger Brown, emeritus professor of higher education policy at Liverpool Hope University, said that universities had “got their priorities wrong”.
“The truth is that almost all of this is a waste of money, as there isn’t really any evidence that students are influenced in making their choices by university marketing strategies,” he said.
Professor Brown called on funding bodies to monitor student marketing spending “because this is money that could be used to improve teaching”.
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said the figures were indicative of “a style over substance culture creeping into higher education. More money seems to be spent on selling the idea of an education, rather than properly funding it.”
However, Robert Morgan, Sir Julian Hodge professor of marketing and strategy at Cardiff University, said that universities had little option but to spend on student marketing, as they were trying to differentiate themselves in a market where the benefits of one degree over another were difficult to prove.
“This expenditure is a necessary requirement to exist. For some universities the return on investment is questionable, but they have no choice,” he said.
Last week, in a separate survey of university marketing directors, two-thirds reported an increase in marketing spending over the past three years.
Respondents to the Bournemouth University research, which was supported by PR firm Communications Management, identified students as “picky consumers” and “demanding customers” who wanted “24/7” access to information.
Chris Chapleo, senior lecturer in marketing at Bournemouth and author of the report titled The Effect of Increased Tuition Fees on Higher Education Marketing in the UK, said its results showed that “senior management has started to realise that as a consequence of the changing operating environment, marketing is necessary not only to attract students but also for the university’s reputation”.