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Augar inadvertently reveals HE’s failure in marketing on access and participation

by | Jun 5, 2019 | News

Yesterday I wrote about the how the Augar Report has revealed the failure of marketing in universities.

Leading on from this, the second major example of marketing’s failure in our higher education system is contained within the section in Augar on “Access & Participation”, which notes that:

“Currently more than £1bn is spent annually on widening access and participation and supporting disadvantaged students.”

“We are surprised that there has been no overall assessment of the effectiveness of spend on different approaches to recruiting and supporting disadvantaged students.”

We are spending more than £1,000,000,000 pa on highly local campaigns run by individual universities, often with a focus on teenagers and with Access Agreements that are to be polite, thin on the ground when it comes to KPIs and real achievements.

The report then goes on to argue for the re-introduction of the £3,000 annual maintenance grant for disadvantaged students.

A good marketer would argue that £1bn is far too much, and far too late. If you want to persuade more of the disadvantaged to go on to further or higher education, you have to begin to change social attitudes much earlier, starting with parents before their children are even born.

In the same way that marketers have run social campaigns over decades making smoking and drink-driving socially unacceptable, so I propose a long-term communications campaign designed to make aspiration cool, and persuading parents to want more for their children than they ever achieved themselves.

Universities & FE Colleges find themselves fishing in small pools with their outreach activities. What we need to do is grow the pools into lakes. This will take time.

The irony within the Augar report is that there is so much emphasis on tuition fee pricing when the real issue that hinders disadvantaged students from applying is living costs. They really don’t have a problem with the tuition fee, recognising that it produces a level playing field, and will be written off if they can’t repay.

Their real problem is surviving at university when there’s no Bank of Mum and Dad to fall back on. £3,000 is just about enough to keep them going for part of a term.

So, here’s a suggestion as to how to spend that £1bn and get some real momentum.

  • Give £35m every year to the Dept of Education to run a decade-long communications campaign using mostly social media to raise aspirations in parts of the country where they are stubbornly low.
  • Restrict the amount of money that universities are allowed to spend on local outreach and demand performance related KPIs
  • And give the rest via a centrally managed fund to disadvantaged students in the form of a £12,000 pa living allowance grant – and invest more on them via careers services to provide alternative social capital.

Augar’s conclusion is that “Whilst we support the overall approach to access, participation and success for disadvantaged students we note with surprise the absence of any over-arching assessment of the impact of different approaches to widening participation and success.”

There is no over-arching assessment because it would be too embarrassing for the sector to disclose how £1bn has achieved so little. So how can Augar support the overall approach? OFFA was too soft and too often blind-sided by access agreements which were long on rhetoric and short on results.

Let’s hope the OfS proposed initiative on widening participation is tougher, more imaginative and much less bureaucratic. And that maybe this time, they ask for a little help from marketing.

David Miller is a Consulting Fellow for Halpin Partnership.