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Our consultants have senior-level expertise in sectors that operate for the public good.

We work with non-profits and for-profits including universities, schools, charities, the NHS and arts/cultural organisations.

These institutions are educating our future leaders, providing a platform for talented artists and transforming lives.

But transformation has its challenges.

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Latest news

Inequality - calling it out is not enough.

Oct 11, 2019

HEPI’s report on ideas for reducing racial inequality is great. But what’s next?

While I was reading it, a few questions came to mind.

Who is going to continue the conversation?

Which universities are going to step up, make a pledge and meet a target?

Leadership is still a problem in this area. VCs who are great at this take an active role in championing race equality in all its forms and journeys (staff, student, alumni). They have a well-informed opinion. They have meaningful relationships with the right internal and external networks. They use a robust data strategy to inform and improve on their interventions.

How much of a role do the BME/BAME/Multicultural staff networks at institutions have to play?

They have a leading role to play. Put them at the centre of everything you do for race equality. This is where the raw conversations are happening and some of the best innovations are coming out.

What can we learn from other sectors?

It must be admitted that higher education is playing catch up when it comes to race equality. The private sector is well ahead of the game. Take Ernst & Young for example – how are they bridging the gap between the experience of partners right at the top and their new talented and underrepresented fresh-faced graduates? They are using Virtual Reality. Are they open to conversations? You bet – go and ask them.

Are we right to align funding criteria to Equality interventions such as the case with Athena Swan?

Yes. But is this the only role we want funding bodies to play? Do we dare ask them about their own EDI policies and how diverse their teams are? Perhaps there is a leadership role for funding bodies to play here too. In the same respect, I love HEPI for the report but it only took my colleague 30 seconds to point out the same lack of diversity ‘elephant in the room’ exists within many bodies related to or working with Higher Education, and it’s an issue we are well aware of at Halpin too. Is the report enough? Maybe. But the perception of your organisation and its lack of representation is real.

How important is the Race Equality Charter (REC)?

The REC has received mixed reviews up and down the country from HR teams and leadership committees across the sector. In my experience this has blighted REC’s reputation, and therefore its effectiveness. If REC is to have any kind of impact like Athena Swan or Stone Wall then we need to work with it. Let’s not get too hung up on the semantics – it’s never going to be perfect – The notion of ‘Race’ itself is not perfect. What the REC provides is a target and that is the best way to start achieving some change.

There are some home truths in HEPI’s report, and in the comments from various authors of the essays.

The one that hit home for me was that...

This is an equality emergency.

Action has to be taken.

Working in higher education, we strive to solve the most pressing challenges in the world. Imagining that we can do this as one homogeneous group is a mistake. In fact, it's probably how we got to this situation in the first place.

If you want to effect real change at your institution, get in touch. Halpin’s consultants conduct equality, diversity and inclusion reviews to help institutions achieve best practice.

Fezzan Ahmed is a Consulting Fellow for Halpin – the home of experts in higher education and beyond.

Mental Health – what are we doing?

Oct 09, 2019

I have four children in schools at the moment, from the ages of 6 to 15. Every one of them has weekly homework, even the 6-year-old. The pressure on the others to perform well in SATs, mocks, yearly tests etc. is ever mounting, and that’s not to mention actual GCSEs which my eldest will be undertaking this year.

What are we doing?

In the workplace, we are addicted to growth and ever-increasing performance. Now everyone wants to progress in their role, and do better, but the growth model seems to be fraying at the edges. What happens if the projected budgets don’t perform as they should for organisations? In my experience we simply reason that away with certain things being “abnormalities”, by making a bigger target next year, and putting more pressure on those already struggling to meet the targets they currently have. Are we trying to push in order to get the best out of people, or are we simply setting them up for failure?

Are we facing reality?

All of this pressure in education and in the workplace seems to be leading to an epidemic of mental illness. Everyone in their lives will be touched by this, whether as a sufferer or the friend of family of someone who is affected. Often both. Unfortunately, proactively looking after our mental health comes a sorry second to the need to perform and to be seen to be doing so, and proactive strategies are only usually used after someone has suffered a crisis: an exercise regime, eating and sleeping well, dealing with stress appropriately and reaching out when you need help are all part of the things we should all be doing all the time.

Are we proactively helping each other?

We can often see when a friend or colleague is struggling, but somehow we don’t speak up and we let that situation continue until crisis point. It can be a hard conversation to have with someone, but isn’t that better than regretting the fact that you never tried to say anything? So often a turning point in someone’s life (listen to any interview) is when someone was brave enough to say, “I’m worried about you, you need to think about what you’re doing”.

Where do you get help?

The statistics on research and the availability of help on the NHS are frankly not great. The fraction of money that goes into mental health research, despite it being a leading cause of death for people up to the age of 49, is vastly, vastly less than that for cancer, for example. Child and Adolescent Mental Health is in desperate need of more psychologists, clinicians and funding. But the Charities absolutely do exist if you need to reach out. Samaritans, Mind, Young Minds, Think Twice etc. But the very best first port of call is your local GP. Don’t wait to get help, and the NHS has launched ‘One You – Every Mind Matters’ – a collection of resources as a place to start online.

What can we all do?

Back to where I started, every business wants to perform well, whether that is for-profit or otherwise. But performing well doesn’t have to come at the expense of your mental health. Achieving a balance is absolutely key. After all, who actually thinks family should come second? I haven’t heard that used much as a phrase.

At Halpin, we try to encourage people to take their wellness seriously, and have made taking some time out part of our away days. That might sound odd, but someone who has taken a bit of time for themselves then has more to contribute to others. We aren’t perfect, but we are consciously trying to do things differently.

So make space in your life to do the things you need to do in order to feel mentally well. Take some time, and get things in balance. If you are the one setting targets, make them so that they can actually be achieved, and with input from those who are subject to them. And please do reach out to those around you when you are suffering, and when you see others heading for a fall.

That’s what we can do.

Halpin can undertake a review of your workplace mental health or your provision for students - get in touch to find out more.

Shaun Horan is Joint CEO of Halpin, the home of experts in higher education and beyond

Case Study: City Law School

Sep 30, 2019

Service: Market Position, Strategic Restructure advice

Since August 2018, Halpin has been working with City Law School, firstly to undertake a review on their market position and more recently to provide strategic advice and support around their decision to restructure the School.

City Law School is facing unprecedented change, with both external drivers (such as changes being proposed by the Solicitors Regulation Authority and the Bar Standards Board), and internal changes (huge increase in LLB students, the consolidation of the ‘Practice’ and ‘Academic’ aspects into a new building).

In light of this period of change, and prior to the appointment of the new Dean of the Law School, Halpin was commissioned to review CLS’s market position, and to recommend a constructive path forward.

Our work with the Law School to find its market position led to further research regarding the future of legal education. The additional research was designed to gather evidence from undergraduate LLB and BPTC students on their programmes, as well as to canvas institutional opinion from professional services and academic staff on how to transform into a nimble, innovative and highly rated School.

Our findings were presented to the new Dean of the Law School in January 2019 and the next phase of our work – on refining the BPTC programme via testing with employers – is scheduled to commence in February.


  • Realistic evidence-based benchmarking.
  • Clear recommendations on developing new offerings to satisfy the direction of legal education in the future.
  • Strategy for increasing market share in international recruitment.
  • Further recommendations regarding structure and management as well as teaching and student experience to facilitate any future change.

What can HE learn from the collapse of Thomas Cook?

Sep 27, 2019

1. “One-offs happen all the time.”

Thomas Cook has been buffeted by “one offs” - volcanic ash clouds in 2010, the Arab spring in 2011, heat waves and Brexit. In the face of increased uncertainty and damaging ‘events’, the board should have focused on debt reduction to increase resilience of the business. HE institutions waiting for the upturn in demographics and resolution of Brexit to deliver student numbers take note - there will be other “one off” events in these uncertain times.

2. Customers change their behaviour and you have to change with it… fast.

Thomas Cook’s business model didn’t change as people changed the way they booked holidays - for example still having high street outlets when people were booking online.

“One might argue that the product mix on offer at Thomas Cook did not align with what its customers really wanted.” - Jonathan Manning, Business Live HE institutions that don’t have a deep understanding of their ‘customers’ (the way they make decisions, how they want to be communicated with, how they learn and what they expect from their university) will die at the hands of nimbler competition. Now is the time to ensure you have the right market intelligence at your fingertips, you are looking ahead to predict what your students will expect of you, you know what your competitors are doing and how they are changing.

3. This government will allow painful failures to happen

The UK government refused to bail out Thomas Cook, saying it would create a ‘moral hazard’ and increase risks taken by businesses if they thought the government wouldn’t let them fail.

Does this sound remarkably like the rhetoric used around allowing university failures? If we were ever to doubt whether they would allow a university to fail, look at how the government has allowed Thomas Cook to fail. They would rather spend government money on getting holidaymakers home in the short-term, rather than helping to save a business with thousands of employees and the investment money of pension funds in the long-term.

HE institutions face many challenges with continued reductions in student numbers, heavy borrowing for capital programmes and rising salary and pension costs. It might be wise to review the assumptions built into your institution’s financial strategy, and consider the criticism that Thomas Cook leadership faced for not focusing harder on reducing debt and looking to long-term financial sustainability.

4. It’s all about governance

Boris Johnson decided to immediately home in on the directors of Thomas Cook, saying, “One is driven to reflect whether the directors of these companies are properly incentivised.” The failure of Thomas Cook will now be subject to an inquiry by the Insolvency service who has been asked by Andrea Leadsom to look at directors' conduct "immediately prior to and at insolvency". Governance in all sectors is the focus of much attention from regulators. Now is the time to review your institution’s governance - whether it is ‘due’ or not.

5. Remuneration is the ‘hot’ story

In the face of thousands losing their jobs, tens of thousands stranded on holiday and the damage to pension funds, the focus of the media has swiftly turned to the pay packages of the directors of Thomas Cook. Questions have been asked about how their pay was or wasn’t linked to performance, and the governance decisions made around their remuneration.

Given the significant focus of attention on HE leadership remuneration, we can see how this will become the focus of attention if and when failures happen in HE. If you haven’t reviewed your remuneration policies and processes, do it now.

Susie Hills is Joint CEO of Halpin, the home of experts in higher education.

Sources and further reading:

Five features of successful projects

Sep 27, 2019

As Halpin celebrates our two-year anniversary this week, I thought I’d reflect on the lessons we have learnt from our first two years in business, how we have used these lessons to help our clients, and how they might help you in your work.

Since we set up the business in 2017, our team of Consultants and Consulting Fellows have worked on 60 projects for 35 clients across leadership, strategy, performance, governance, equality, finance, HR, health & safety, programme review, marketing strategy, student experience, fundraising, campaigns and communications.

Throughout our work we have identified a series of factors that lead to a successful project – here are five to get you started. Use them to guide your work internally or to get the best out of consultants who work with you.

1. Fully reasoned shared objectives

When undertaking any project, it’s vital that everyone involved has a shared understanding of what the objectives are and why they are important. So often it’s assumed that everyone is on the same page and that the objectives and why they are required is obvious.

In our work with clients we have learnt that time taken at the start to fully set out objectives is time well spent. The more detailed an understanding we have of the reasoning behind the objectives, the more we can help define them clearly and ensure they will deliver what is required. It enables us to deliver the very best work for our clients at the very best value.

If you are using consultants, spend time at this stage of the project exploring the objectives, developing the reasoning behind them and refining them if required. You should do this even if you have been through a procurement process which set out expectations quite clearly. Often the person who has written the requirements is not the person who commissioned the work. It is only really through frank discussions that your consultant will fully understand what you need and why you need it. They will also help you refine your objectives to ensure they deliver what you really need – use their wisdom and perspective.

This is also an invaluable approach if you are leading a project internally as it enables focused effort and ensures clarity of understanding across a team. It also gives team members the opportunity to ‘own’ the rationale for the work they are undertaking so they can explain it to others.

2. Clearly defined scope and scale

Understanding what is in and out of scope is crucial. Complex projects have fuzzy edges and can extend in scope and scale as they go on - so definition is key. What and who do you need to involve and why? What is open to questioning and change and what is not? How long do you want the project to last and why? When do you need deliverables by and why? It sounds obvious but it can be harder than you think – that is why projects grow and extend (and become more costly). Sometimes an increase in the scope and scale is vital if something is uncovered during early stages, but more often the scope and scale grows incrementally without checking.

If you are working with consultants, ensure that you all agree scope and scale at the start of the project. Agree that if/when the scope is changed you will be informed and told why, so you have an opportunity to sign off anything additional. Internal teams should adopt the same approach; changes in scope and scale should be agreed by the team so the reasons why are understood and clearly communicated. A project manager is a critical resource and can help keep things on track. The more experienced they are, the more they will see issues coming before they present a big problem.

3. Focus on data and evidence

We often have lots of data and evidence, but less often do we take the time to analyse it, benchmark it and explore the story it tells without making assumptions. If you’re working with a consultant, ask them for a list at the outset of all the data and information they think they will need, and share fully so that they can bring value. If you’re leading a project internally it’s vital that at the outset of a project you gather all the information you think you will need, and consult widely to see who is holding relevant information. Read and digest this before you talk to team members – make sure you are fully up to speed and ensure you get best value from your discussions.

4. There is great power in listening

All challenges can be resolved through asking open questions and carefully listening to the answers. Questions such as:

• What are the key issues?
• What could be improved?
• What works well?
• Where does tension lie?
• What are the risks?

As you listen, you need to check you understand:

• What I am hearing is… • Is that right?
• I think you are saying…
• Have I understood you correctly?
• It sounds like the key point you are making is… do you agree?

If you are enlisting a consultant to review an area of your institution, make sure they have the skills to ask, listen and explore your specific situation - and not make assumptions and bring in a blueprint developed elsewhere. If you are undertaking some kind of review and need to talk to team members, allow plenty of time - nothing is worse than a conversation that’s rushed or curtailed. Leave gaps between meetings so you can digest what you have heard, take notes, and refresh your energy. Make an open invitation to staff/stakeholders to talk to you – you may be surprised that key information lies with people who you might not have included on your ‘list’ of people to talk to.

5. Tell truth with kindness

There is no point in hiding from the truth or sugar-coating it until it is unrecognisable. To bring about change we often have to feel uncomfortable, we may have to admit we got something wrong or something isn’t good enough, or at least that things have changed, and we need to make changes as a result. However, telling truth with kindness is different from sugar-coating it or avoiding it. We can tell the truth about the situation without blaming individuals. We can recognise what has worked alongside what is not working, we can thank people for hard work, we can show them respect, we can let them know we understand it may feel difficult, we can take time to consult, explain, listen.
If you are working with a consultant, find one who can deliver truth with kindness (ask for examples of how they do this), and if you are leading a project internally, set out to tell truth with kindness from the very start of your project – let it guide your work.

Every project is different, but these five core points have been relevant to every project we have undertaken at Halpin, and I suspect they always will be. What would you add to the list of things required to deliver a successful project?

Susie Hills is Joint CEO at Halpin, the home of experts in higher education.

Marketing to undergraduate applicant parents

Sep 13, 2019

The student recruitment cycle for 2020 has already started. Universities are holding their Autumn open days and schools and colleges will be encouraging their Year 13s to think about their personal statements and UCAS choices. But what about parents of these future undergraduates? What’s their role in the application journey, and what does this mean for marketing?

Earlier this year we researched the views of parents of university applicants. We wanted to understand their role in the decisions that their children were making and the points in the cycle in which they had the most influence. Our findings are based on a relatively small sample and so we aren’t pretending these insights are equally applicable to every family or every applicant. But our results gave a very clear picture of parents who want to be involved in the process.

Some of the key findings include:

Parents do want influence

Two-thirds of our parents admitted that they had tried to influence their child’s choice of university, but the majority know they failed; almost 60% said they were ‘not at all’ successful in doing so.

Parents are most involved at the start

Our parents believe that their child largely took the lead in searching for universities and courses, submitting their application and responding to offers. But parents were more likely to be involved in researching and booking open days or visits, with 40% saying they were most proactive in this area. This is probably not surprising, as open days are often used at the start of the process when the applicant is less likely to be familiar with the concept of an open day, but they may also be dependent on parents for the practicalities and finances of open day visits.

Parents are the first to think about funding

Around 60% of our parents said they took the lead in finding out about the different funding options for university. The applicants might be focused on researching courses, but the financial practicalities are apparently less of a priority for them. Despite this interest in finance, parents were the least involved when the applicant later applies for accommodation, even though there is an obvious link with finance and budgets.

Parents remain protective - and proud

When asked for their highlight of the application process, almost all our parents mentioned their child getting university offers. To them, this is seen as its own achievement. To be offered a place, whether unconditional or conditional, can feel like the main goal of the process. This is understandable; not only it is an endorsement of the child’s academic abilities, it is also the point at which control switches back to their child. However, parents are more likely to protest at anything which they consider to be ‘unfair’; this could be the exam system, the admissions process, the way their child is treated or the extent to which they believe the personal statement is taken into account.

Parents want information too

Although our parents were grateful for helpful admissions staff and honest presentations at open days, a few would have welcomed more information, tailored for them. These parents are only just beginning their journey of adjusting to being less involved in their children’s lives and, especially if they are contributing financially, still want to be included.

So what have we learnt? At the very least, universities should have communication plans in place for parents of undergraduate applicants. They have a key role to play in encouraging and guiding their child through the process, especially at the start. Secondly, they are generally more confident and critical consumers than their children, so they have high expectations for transparency and authenticity. And finally, they want to feel involved; so time spent in understanding their attitudes and behaviours is likely to bring dividends.

If you’d like an informal discussion about how we could carry out research into your applicants’ parents, or any other stakeholder group, get in touch. Rachel Killian is a Senior Consultant at Halpin, the home of experts in higher education marketing and stuent recruitment.

Developing the Board & Executive connection

Sep 04, 2019

ICSA: The Governance Institute has recently published “A View at the Top” which reviews Boardroom trends in FTSE top 100 companies comparing 1991 and 2017. It reveals some interesting changes (1991 figures are bracketed):

  • Average Board Size is 12 (11)
  • 26% (49%) of directors are executive
  • 28% (4%) of directors are female - 24% are NEDs & only 3% are executive directors
  • Average age 58 (56)
  • 49% (38%) have an accountancy/finance background
  • 25% (33%) were educated at Oxford, Cambridge or Harvard

On the basis of the above statistics there has been progress but there is still quite some way to go before we have truly diverse boards. It would be interesting to review the statistics for Higher Education.

I found the reduction of executive directors interesting – if the Board size is 11 this means there are normally just 2-3 executives – often just the CEO and the CFO. The report’s reflections on this change mirrors some of the discussions that I have had in Higher Education. The reduction in the numbers of executive directors was prompted by the Higgs report (2002), and the ICSA report questions whether this comes at a cost if the Board sees the executive team less frequently. The potential cost could be through the non-executive Board members having less:

  • in-depth knowledge of the operational details of the business,
  • ability to evaluate the executives’ capability to implement the strategy,
  • ability to evaluate the succession potential of other members of the executive team,
  • leadership development opportunities including enabling the other executives to have their ideas tested, to gain experience in the Boardroom and to understand and anticipate the Board’s concerns in the papers they write.

Writing in my last blog on the OfS challenges for HE Governance I noted that “the management team needs to be of the right quality to be trusted to manage the implementation of the University Strategy, Council decisions and the detailed operations of the University. Council needs to let them do so. However, the Executive also needs to be properly accountable for their performance to Council, justifying and maintaining Council’s confidence”.

If Councils are to do this, the management team needs to be visible to the Council:

• Each University has its own way of doing things but often there are very few members of the executive team on the Council as many of the staff posts are filled by election. The HE sector is well ahead of the corporate sector (which is only just starting to consider this) in having employees and students on its Boards. However, there is a case for reconsidering the balance between having members of the executive team on the Council and elected staff so that the number of the executive team on Council is increased.

• Having members of the executive team who are not Council members attend the Council can be very useful in many ways, provided the numbers of attendees does not become excessive and there is a clear understanding that they are not members of Council. They may attend to present papers, take it in turns to attend or a select number may regularly attend.

• Briefing Sessions and Awaydays for Council members can be an easy way to involve the executive team in presenting informative sessions on their areas of responsibility and in allowing informal interaction with Council members

• Encouraging Council members to link informally with members of the executive team, initially at induction, but also when they would like to understand issues in more detail can also be helpful, provided Council members maintain a distance and do not become advocates for specific areas.

• Involving Council members in the appointing of members of the executive team can also be useful. Some institutions hold to the management line that Council appoints the Vice-Chancellor and then it is for the Vice-Chancellor to appoint his or her team. Others have Council appointing some or all of the senior members of the executive team. Like many of these issues the right answer involves achieving a balance between involving the Council and respecting the role of the Vice-Chancellor.

• Having a mechanism for Council to evaluate the performance of the executive team and to discuss team development and succession planning.

Good interaction between Council members themselves and with the Executive will always be key to understanding the University and good decision-making.

Frank Toop is a Consulting Fellow for Halpin – the home of experts in higher education governance.

Lessons in leadership from Greta Thunberg

Aug 16, 2019

So the ‘grown ups’ are getting another lesson in leadership from Greta as she sets sail...

Here are my three top lessons in leadership from Greta:

1. Speak truth to power

Greta has shown us that radical candour is vital, that it’s ok to make your audience uncomfortable - in fact sometimes its kind to do so. She has travelled to our seats of power and has looked ‘leaders’ in the eye and told them that our house is on fire.

Greta wants us to change because she cares passionately about our future. Because she cares she tells us the truth. She lets us feel uncomfortable, in fact she wants us to be uncomfortable because the truth about the climate emergency we face is more than uncomfortable – it’s terrifying. She holds up a mirror and pushes us to look. She isn’t being ‘nice’ but she is ultimately being kind - she wants to save us.

We are all seeking feedback from others as we work. Even the most successful people I’ve worked with have sometimes asked, ‘Was that ok?’. We rarely get honest, kind feedback; we usually read between the lines and listen to our own inner critic. I was talking to someone who gives training, and they said that in every session the participants avoid giving critical feedback to fellow participants, because they are uncomfortable. But without that critique how are we to improve?

Great leaders will give us honest feedback (sometimes uncomfortably so) because they want us to succeed; they are championing us and our careers. They don’t avoid a ‘difficult’ conversation because of their own sake (to avoid discomfort) - they have the conversation for our sake (to help us grow). I am grateful to the boss who told me to “have an opinion”, to the boss who invested in voice coaching for me (“your voice lacks gravitas”), and to the boss who said, “It’s not enough to be good at what you do, you need to be known for being good at what you do.” All these feedback moments felt hard, but they helped me more than those bosses know. If they hadn’t have been honest then I would not have learnt.

2. Know your stuff and keep it simple

Greta relentlessly focuses on the facts, the evidence. She knows her stuff and has clear messages that she repeats.... and repeats... And she checks we are listening - ‘Is my mic on? Can you hear me?’.

She pushes us to focus on the facts. She is clear. She makes complex information simple for us to digest.

The best leaders are able to tell a simple story of ‘what good looks like’. They evidence their view with robust data, yet they handle that data with flair and imagination. The combination of data, evidence and story is powerful - it creates a clear vision of where we need to get to. The keys to success lie in keeping it simple and having the determination, and patience to repeat it often.

The best leaders have clear, powerful messages and they repeat them.

The best leaders have clear, powerful messages and they repeat them.

3. Walk the talk

Greta is absolutely living her values and challenging our views of what it’s ok to do. She shames the leaders who fly in jets to Davos as she climbs into a yacht to sail the Atlantic. More beautifully, she says, “I am not telling people what to do” as she heads off. No, she isn’t telling us. She is showing us. She is challenging us to change. She has the grit, determination and patience to spend two weeks sailing the Atlantic to make her point. She doesn’t ‘cop out’ and hop on a plane and then offset the emissions. She lives her message. Uncompromisingly. And interestingly this behaviour is so ‘provocative’ that grown adults with power feel the need to joke about and bully her via Twitter.

How many leaders really lead by example? How many go above and beyond to model the behaviours and values they espouse? People won’t believe or trust in someone who says one thing and then behaves in another way.

And if they don’t trust you how can you lead? How can you create psychological safety if you aren’t trustworthy?

If you can’t create psychological safety, people won’t feel safe to stretch themselves and take risks. They won’t get the best from you. Time and time again we hear that people don’t leave bad organisations, they leave bad managers. They don’t want to work with people they can’t believe in, people who don’t or won’t walk the talk.

One of the gifts of getting older is learning from younger people. It’s a joy to see young people like Greta challenging the ‘grown ups’ to do better. There is much we can learn. Most of it we may already think we know - but knowledge is nothing without action.

What have you learned from Greta?

Susie Hills is Joint CEO of Halpin, the home of experts in higher education leadership.

Why are we still uncomfortable with university marketing?

Aug 13, 2019

In the last 2 weeks, I’ve taken screenshots of around 40 university adverts for Clearing that have appeared in my Facebook feed. I’m a parent of an 18-year old, so expect to be targeted with digital adverts. Most of us will also have been exposed to radio, outdoor or even print ads in the last few weeks, alongside the hundreds of thousands of pounds that will be spent on Google to reach those who are actively searching for Clearing places.

There is still a sense though, that the higher education sector isn’t entirely comfortable with this type of marketing. It seems to me that there are three possible reasons:

  1. Because marketing is still quite ‘new’ within a university structure and doesn’t have the support of all professional and academic colleagues. According to Marketing Week's Career & Salary Survey 2017, those marketing professionals working in education are the least positive about their colleagues’ views of marketing, with 14% suggesting marketing is not understood at all. So no matter the strength of the external marketing function, there is still a job to be done in selling the ‘how and why’ of marketing to its internal customers.

  2. Because it feels like blatant self-promotion, a bit too sales-focused, pushy and crude. The Guardian’s recent article following their FOI request on marketing spend and the size of marketing teams epitomised this perfectly; we frown upon investment in something that seems to be only acting in self-interest. But our applicants are making big investments and they need to be able to identify and choose a university that is right for them. By being distinctive and authentic about what they are, what they do and how they do it, they can help applicants to make a better choice.

  3. Because, quite frankly, the standard of marketing isn’t always as good as it might be. Some of the Clearing adverts that have been shown to me are evidence of that; they show very little understanding of who I am (I’m the parent, not the applicant), what subjects might be relevant to me (e.g. automotive engineering, when I’ve most definitely not shown an interest in that anywhere online – I guarantee), and headlines that are dull, badly written and say nothing. Unfortunately, our higher education marketeers are badly paid compared to other sectors (Marketing Week’s Career & Salary Survey 2019), we do almost little to attract the best creative and digital talent into the sector and marketing budgets are often insufficient (see point 1).

So instead of criticising the wave of Clearing adverts chasing after me and other parents this week, let’s agree that if our universities are to thrive, reach new markets, compete effectively and support applicants to make one of the most important investment decisions of their life, then we need to embrace marketing and brand as being a key part in what our universities do. At the same time, let’s recognise marketing as the profession that it is within our universities, give internal marketing the importance it deserves, make strong cases to attract the best marketing and digital talent into the sector and resource it properly so that other sectors might just - one day - look to higher education to learn about marketing best practice.

Rachel Killian is a Senior Consultant for Halpin, the home of experts in higher education marketing and student recruitment

2019. The year Clearing became Cool.

Aug 13, 2019

It doesn’t seem that long ago that going into Clearing was an admission of failure. Failure for the student, because they’d missed their grades. Failure for the university because it was an implicit confession of weakness.

How things have changed.

The price of growth is a change in the balance of power. Universities which had exploited the lifting of the cap, have grown enormously, and who had never previously been in Clearing found themselves forced to dip their toes in the water. Excusing themselves by claiming that ‘only a few places were available on only a handful of courses to highly qualified applicants.’

Not anymore. The Times reported at the weekend that there were 4,614 Russell Group courses available from all their members apart from the Golden Triangle plus St Andrews. With these hyper-premium exceptions, every university in the Kingdom from Anglia Ruskin to York is touting for late business. UCAS is predicting that the numbers in Clearing 2019 will rise to around 80,000, up 13,000 on last year.

The stigma that used to surround Clearing, for students as well as universities, has all but evaporated. Students have realised that supply now exceeds demand, the balance of power has changed, and that they are more in control. Months after compiling their original short lists, and then being forced to decide between firm & insure earlier this year, they’ve had more time to think, more time to review, and more time to change their minds.

Now UCAS has made their lives even easier.

The introduction of their new online self-release system allows students to discard their original choice and enter clearing. Until now, students had to ask permission to be released from their firm choice university. Now they can do it online - no permission needed.

Several thousand have already used this facility - including several hundred who had been made unconditional offers. Sites like the Student Room will undoubtedly publicise this change well over the next cycle, meaning that more and more students and universities will be able to negotiate together over actual grades rather then predicted.

Which has to be another step towards nirvana. The end of predictive grades.

David Miller is a Consulting Fellow for Halpin - the home of experts in higher education marketing and recruitment