Tell students what you can do for them - but be honest, says new UUK head

September 1, 2011

The new president of Universities UK has warned institutions against resorting to marketing “hyperbole” in their efforts to attract students.

Speaking to Times Higher Education in advance of his speech this week at the annual conference of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (Case), Eric Thomas said that “marketing and profile will become increasingly important” for the sector.

He said that institutions would have to explain to students: “What does coming here do for you?”

But he believed that competition between universities would not be advertising-led, with students pulled in simply by the amount of money spent on marketing.

“This is where the Key Information Sets come in,” he said, referring to government plans to require English universities to publish a standardised set of data on student satisfaction, salary on graduation, and other areas.

Professor Thomas cautioned universities against employing “hyperbole” in recruitment initiatives and said they needed to ensure that “the story they tell is deliverable”.

“They must be realistic in what they offer. That will be tested year on year.”

The Case conference, which ran from 30 August to 1 September in Manchester, also discussed the issue of fundraising.

“The key message…is that in the new world we will need to develop all forms of income,” Professor Thomas said.

Arguing that vice-chancellors should become more involved in fundraising, he described them as the people “who can best articulate the future and plan of the university”.

But he said there had to be a balance between meeting potential donors and running the institution. “Even in the US, there’s no person who spends 100 per cent of their time fundraising,” he noted.

Asked what level of philanthropic giving UK universities could ultimately attract, Professor Thomas said they had “plenty to go”. He added: “Whether we get to the US levels, I don’t know. The US has an extremely well established culture of philanthropy, built over centuries.”

But he noted that outside the Ivy League, much philanthropy in the US was a “post-1971 phenomenon”, indicating that it was possible to change the situation within decades, rather than hundreds of years.

Following recent controversy over links between the Gaddafi regime in Libya and the London School of Economics and criticism of the University of Oxford’s acceptance of a donation from Rupert Murdoch, Professor Thomas said scrutiny of such funding would “increase, not decrease”.

But he said: “I’m not accepting the argument that the moral tone of universities will decrease if donations increase.”

He added that it would probably be impossible to avoid every situation in which a donation appeared ethical at the time it was accepted, but inappropriate when new information later came to light.

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