UK universities increased their spending on marketing to potential students by nearly a quarter in the run-up to the introduction of higher fees, a Times Higher Education investigation has found, yet suffered a 7.4 per cent fall in applications.
Commentators have suggested that this type of expenditure will continue to rise owing to the “circular logic of the market”, despite it being a “zero-sum game” for the sector because overall undergraduate places are capped.
Spending at the 70 institutions that responded with figures to a THE Freedom of Information request rose from £26.1 million in the 2010-11 financial or academic year to £31.9 million in 2011-12.
This represents a 22.4 per cent increase (following a 0.1 per cent fall from 2009-10 to 2010-11) and an average spend per institution of £455,461.
Spending rose at 53 universities, fell at 14 and was static at three.
Paul Temple, co-director of the Centre for Higher Education Studies at the Institute of Education, University of London, said that the surge in advertising to prospective applicants was a response to the “unknown territory” of higher fees and a more competitive market for students.
London Business School devoted 2 per cent of its expenditure to attracting students, the largest proportion recorded. It did not respond to THE’s request for comment before the print deadline.
Of the 70 universities offering data, the only institutions to spend nothing on advertising to students in 2011-12 were the universities of Cambridge, Oxford and St Andrews.
There appeared to be little obvious correlation between the surge in such marketing and applications.
Among the 20 universities with the biggest percentage rises in spending in 2011-12, the average fall in applications to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service by 30 June 2012 was 5.6 per cent - only slightly better than the national average decline of 7.4 per cent.
For example, Glasgow Caledonian University more than doubled its spending to £445,969, yet applications fell by 3.5 per cent.
A spokeswoman for the university said that the spending followed a period when six schools at the institution merged into three and the launch of a London campus, so was not “typical”.
Post-1992 universities were some of the biggest spenders. Of the 20 universities that devoted the biggest proportion of overall expenditure to advertising for students, 14 are post-92s and none is from the research- intensive Russell Group.
Logic has its limits
Chris Hackley, professor of marketing at Royal Holloway, University of London, said he could see the “logic” of large student advertising budgets aimed at “international, high-end markets” such as that targeted by London Business School and the “low-end, local markets” sought by some new institutions.
The international students the business school aimed to attract were often “poorly informed” about university prestige, research ranking and other factors, so advertising was an important tactic, he added.
For universities appealing to local, domestic students, advertising could “have a role in encouraging young people doing BTECs and A levels in further education to continue their studies”.
But Professor Hackley was more sceptical about the value of such marketing for the “majority of mid-ranking universities”, as the main factors for student choices such as “locality, parental preference, friends, costs (of accommodation), course choice, rank and the number of Ucas points…fall rather beyond the reach of advertising”.
Universities were also asked what would happen to their spending in 2012- 13. Thirty said it would grow, 19 said it would shrink and 15 said it would stay the same.
Aberystwyth University, for example, said that despite a 5 per cent reduction in the institution’s budget, advertising to students may have to increase because of the “impact of undergraduate fees, increased competition [and] involvement in clearing”.
Professor Hackley said that student marketing expenditure “will probably continue to rise because of the circular logic of the market”.
“There is an element of competitive neurosis…‘If our competitors are doing it, we should, too, just in case,’” he said.
Dr Temple said that while it was “perfectly rational” for universities to increase advertising in order to win a “bigger slice of the cake”, such growth would “not enlarge the whole cake” because student numbers were capped.
In addition, the message from such advertising was “‘Come to our university not the others,’” rather than “going to any university is a good idea”, he argued.