Universities go for a spin

December 10, 1999

Marketing techniques have finally hit higher education. Claire Sanders reports on how the hard sell is boosting student numbers

In the heady days of clearing between August 10 and September 17 universities spent over Pounds 5 million on advertising undergraduate courses in the press and on television, radio and Teletext.

This was 10 per cent less than last year but does not mean that universities are cutting marketing and advertising budgets. According to Riley Research, which has compiled a report on advertising in clearing for the past six years:

"Marketing and admissions staff clearly indicated that they are increasingly shifting their budgets towards other marketing activity throughout the annual marketing cycle."

It is all a far cry from the days when the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals and the Committee of Directors of Polytechnics drew up conventions under which institutions agreed not to advertise undergraduate courses where it was felt "official information channels" would provide enough coverage.

In 1994 the CVCP issued new guidelines on course advertising and abandoned previous agreements. By then institutions were spending an estimated Pounds 5 million a year in the national press

alone. And De Montfort University had hit the headlines by spending Pounds 500,000 on a television advertising campaign using film supplied by one of its companions, Sir David Attenborough. The idea was to build a brand image around the message that life can be difficult without education.

With the expansion of student numbers, the ending of the binary divide and the introduction of fees, many universities argue that life is difficult without marketing. This can cover everything from course advertising and prospectuses to access initiatives, alumni organisations and the internet.

Universities bidding for special initiative money from the higher education funding councils are encouraged to include marketing costs in their bids. This is especially so with the higher education reach-out to business and community funds and widening participation initiatives.

Many turn to outside agencies and consultants for help. Riley, TMP, Barkers, Rada and Kingsway are all fighting for a share of this market. Many of these agencies originally focused on job advertisements but have moved into marketing courses.

Sarah Hawkin, education account manager at Rada, says: "Our activity in this field has

doubled. And it has the great advantage of being recession-proof."

But marketing makes academics nervous. In The THES in 1995 Mike Fitzgerald, then vice-

chancellor of Thames Valley University, was irritated at the

endless flyers he received. "At least they can be shredded and sent to the local primary school as bedding for hamsters," he concluded.

Those working in marketing in universities are fully aware of this hostility. In 1996 the Higher Education External Relations Association (Heera) commissioned a survey into the roles and responsibilities of its members.

Under "worst aspects of the job" came "always having to justify existence, quantify results, dealing with those who think central functions are a tax on academics". This was just below "academics" themselves, who were felt to have "no sense of deadlines or corporate responsibility" and to combine "superior attitudes" with ignorance.

The United States lived through this clash of cultures ten years earlier. Philip Kotler, author of more than 100 articles and books on marketing, wrote a book called Strategic Marketing for Educational Institutions. He charted a number of steps in the evolution of marketing from

"marketing is unnecessary" through "marketing is promotion" and "marketing is positioning" to "marketing is strategic planning". Universities in the UK can be placed on this evolutionary timeline, with older universities

currently at the "unnecessary" stage.

At the strategic planning stage is Sheffield Hallam University. Diana Green became vice-chancellor last year and set up a marketing task group that quickly concluded that a "marketing approach" was needed across the whole university. Alex Ford, director of marketing and development, says: "UK higher education is an increasingly competitive environment. Students are becoming more discerning customers, traditional markets are fragmenting and distance learning and the new 'corporate universities' are becoming our global competitors."

The university, says Professor Green, has to change from being a product driven organisation to a market-driven one. Building on years of work researching student satisfaction, she argues that it is no longer good enough to have the "Marks and Spencer" approach. "You can't just lay out your wares and expect people to come and buy."

To make sure academics are on board, the university has introduced a partnership marketing project. Marketing staff work with administrative and academic staff at all levels in each school to carry out a full market audit, put together a plan and then decide how to implement it.

The university is also appointing market development managers to work with schools to identify and reach new markets. "They will have their feet in the schools and their heads in the markets," says Ms Ford.

But will it work? "It is too early to say," says Ms Ford. "But I can point to one area where it has." The university used to lose applicants in the 18 months between offering them a place and enrolment. Now it uses "relationship marketing". It stays in contact, sending the prospective students information and cards congratulating them on their A-level results. As a result, the university recruited 500 fewer students through clearing this year.

Oxford and Cambridge come closer to Professor Kotler's "unnecessary" model, where "highly attractive" institutions simply set up procedures to select the most promising candidates. Cambridge has a press and publications office, but no corporate marketing strategy. It does, however, go in for targeting, in particular in its attempts to attract more state school pupils.

The story is similar at Oxford, where the marketing strategy is described as promotional. The university does identify the needs of particular groups - it is

increasing scholarships to overseas students who would otherwise not be able to study - but does not have a corporate

marketing strategy.

"It is true to say we are not market-driven, we are more product-driven," a spokeswoman says. "We start from our core values of excellence in research and teaching and know that what we offer has strong academic underpinning."

Rosemary Stamp, Riley's national director for education marketing, believes that institutions ignore marketing at their peril. Riley employs more than 200 staff in nine offices to help universities with promotional campaigns, media placement, print and design, market research, brand development, image management and long-term strategic planning.

But how much does all this cost? The Riley report gives some idea how much universities spent on advertising in clearing this year (see graph left).

The last comprehensive survey of university marketing budgets was carried out by the Higher Education Information Services Trust in 1995. It found that over half of higher education institutions spent more than Pounds 150,000 on marketing during that year. Generally, new universities spent more on marketing than old universities. Nearly 80 per cent of them had budgets over Pounds 250,000 compared with 35 per cent of old universities.

This year De Montfort University, one of the biggest spenders, says its entire marketing budget comes to less than 1 per cent of the university's income. Manchester University spent over Pounds 100,000 on its prospectus and estimates that it spent Pounds 500,000 on course recruitment. The University of East London spent between Pounds 600,000 and Pounds 700,000 on course advertising this year.

Many universities are reluctant to give precise figures, and agencies are equally reluctant to say how much their accounts are worth.

Sheffield Hallam University uses Riley but will not put a figure on the account. Traditionally agencies have made their money by getting between 10 and 15 per cent of the cost of any advert placed in a newspaper. Market research and individual consultancy jobs will be charged on top of this, although agencies say they give universities good rates because the revenue from advertising is so high. Individual consultants are said to charge about a Pounds 1,000 a day.

Professor Green argues that Sheffield Hallam's new strategy will not mean a huge increase in the marketing budget. "It is more a question of looking at what we already do and making sure we have a strategic approach," she says.

And she adds that they are slowly convincing academics of the need for marketing. She argues that above all marketing is about a constructive dialogue with students - and that no university can afford to be without this.

For those nervous of marketing there is one consolation. The area is dominated by women and should help universities with their equal opportunities policies. The 1996 survey for Heera found that over two-thirds of those in external relations were women and that this percentage had risen from 40 per cent in 1989.

* When ads overstep the mark

The Advertising Standards Authority has upheld a number of complaints against universities in the past three years.

Cambridge's faculty of education advertised a PGCE course with the exclamation "No Tuition Fees for PGCE!" As this is the case for most, but not all, PGCE courses, the university was asked to amend the advert in September this year.

Manchester Metropolitan University advertised an MA course in public relations as "The UK's leading public relations masters degree." Stirling

University objected and, as the ASA felt Manchester Metropolitan could not substantiate its claim, it was asked not to repeat it.

Middlesex University said in an advert: "Middlesex University - educating exceptional people since 1878". The university traces its roots to St Katharine's College, which was established in 1878. But since Middlesex University had existed for only five years, the university was told to seek copy advice before advertising again.


Sarah Hawkin, education account manager at Rada, says universities are rushing to agencies for help, particularly the "less highly rated - and that is not necessarily new universities". She says this is a good thing.

"In the past universities were ripped off - they placed ads in directories that were never distributed. With an ad agency that won't happen. It is good to see universities waking up."

But she detects an attitude problem in universities."One academic told me he thought it vulgar to ask a student where they had seen the ad for a course. With such attitudes, universities can't even measure the results of their advertising campaigns. When you talk to academics you can tell that they are really trying to understand marketing because they have to, not because they want to."

And she says universities sometimes want imposssible quick-fix solutions. "Now that the bottom has fallen out of the mature student market, universities are rushing to us asking how to get more mature students. They can't overnight. Something like that can take five years to change."

Rosemary Stamp, national director for education marketing at Riley, believes that most universities now have highly experienced people in their marketing departments. "Marketing-aware universities are concerned to assess what it is their clients and potential clients might need from them," she says. And universities now see marketing as part of a cyclical, annual process.

Melanie Whyatt, head of Barkers education, says it is increasingly common for universities to have different agencies handling their job adverts and their marketing strategies. "The marketing side is the fastest growing side. We have had many old universities coming to us keen to widen participation and asking how to do it. We work in partnership and are sensitive to the university culture where marketing is not always highly regarded."


Robert Hawker is marketing and communications manager at London Guildhall University. In his time at LGU he has seen marketing flourish and has also gone through a number of agencies until he felt he had the right one.

"We use McCann Erickson now," he says. "They do not have a history of selling job ads as many others do, they are more a consumer agency in the Saatchi and Saatchi league. I chose them because they were very creative."

Mr Hawker's background in advertising enabled him to be very critical of the service the university was getting from agencies. "I knew what they could do, so I was demanding," he says. He would not say how much the university paid the agency.

Cyrrhian McCrae is marketing director at Coventry University. Three years ago the university adopted a corporate marketing strategy. "Five years ago it was a dirty word," she says. Now each university school has a person responsible for marketing. "We are all marketeers now," she says.

Each school is issued with a calendar detailing corporate marketing activity. The university uses Riley because it has found the agency to be good at marketing solutions.

At Manchester University marketing comes under the international and public relations office. Alan Ferns, information officer, says: "Like many older universities we are moving from a promotional to a marketing model. Two months ago we appointed our first market research officer. For the past 20 years we have used Riley for our jobs, but two years ago we broadened this to include market research and course advertising."

He says the university spends about Pounds 500,000 on course recruitment and puts a lot of effort into converting applications into acceptances.

"Other universities have to work on generating applications," he says.

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