Top-up fees are ushering in a new era in marketing. Chris Johnston reports
The latest sign of the new professional era of marketing emerging in universities came this month in The Times Higher 's jobs pages - days after top-up fees were finally enshrined in the statute books.
The talk among senior academic managers focuses on student customers, brands and market niches as they fight for survival in the increasingly competitive market for students.
Leeds University is recruiting its first marketing director - one of a new breed in the sector, equivalent in status to pro vice-chancellors and reporting directly to vice-chancellors.
"All UK universities will radically have to reshape the way that they engage with their student body - adopting a customer, not merely product, orientation and establishing themselves as a brand in a highly competitive and dynamic market," the advertisement says, underlining the cultural shift at English higher education institutions as they prepare for the introduction of variable undergraduate fees from 2006.
According to Leeds, the marketing director will be the "guardian of the brand" and lead student recruitment and fundraising as well as press and public relations activities. The successful candidate will report directly to Michael Arthur, the new vice-chancellor, who joins from Southampton University in September.
Leeds could follow a number of universities and appoint a marketing person from industry. Michele Ibbs, who worked for Princes, the canned fish producer, became marketing director at Liverpool John Moores University last year.
She reports to the vice-chancellor, and her remit includes responsibility for the university's widening participation activities.
Ms Ibbs admitted that she was apprehensive before starting the job but found staff accepted that John Moores was a business that retained its core academic values. "It's a very delicate balance - at the end of the day it is not the marketing department that has to deliver on the promise," she said.
Other institutions that have recruited from outside the academic sector include Nottingham and Plymouth universities.
But not everyone in higher education believes those with experience of marketing in the "FMCG" - fast-moving consumer goods - sector are the right people to "sell" a university. One academic described it as "the reverse of putting a civil servant in charge of marketing McDonald's".
While many universities already have a marketing director or manager, none of them has the power to control fundamental issues such as course portfolio, entry grades and fees charged. Marketing experts believe this will have to change if universities want to maintain or increase their share of students and income.
Richard Taylor, Leicester University's marketing director, said it was vital that those coming from outside the sector understood the culture of academic freedom in universities.
In his view, the most difficult task was devising a unique selling point.
"Defining what makes it special is hard - it's easier for Oxbridge, and even somewhere such as Loughborough has sport, but it's not quite as simple for other universities," Mr Taylor said.
Differentiation is a problem also identified by Sharon Stephan, marketing director of Nebraska University in the US. A key element of her "reputation enhancement" role is promoting the university's academic offerings in innovative ways. Last year, the university launched a campaign that put billboard advertisements on the sides of dozens of interstate lorries.
In England, top-up fees will cause recruitment problems for some universities, but an even greater challenge awaits after 2011 as the number of 18-year-olds leaving school begins to fall.
For details of the Leeds University marketing director position, email LeedsMD@perrettlaver.com