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Collaborating with your competitors

by Rachel Killian | Nov 29, 2019 | Strategy & Transformation

We all know there is an increased level of competition between universities. There’s no doubt that this is real; in student and staff recruitment as well as reputation and league tables. Clients tell us that there is a higher degree of caution when sharing their successes, for fear of revealing commercially sensitive information. Equally, projects which may have failed are hidden away with shame, rather than used as learning tools to inform the next curriculum or marketing innovation.

So I was intrigued by the possibility for collaboration at the UUK’s Marketing & Communications conference this week. A number of the sessions showed that the success of one university does not diminish the achievements of another; rather, collaboration and sharing of skills and resources can benefit both the individual institution and the sector more widely.

The most obvious example was from the British Council, who were showcasing their ‘Study UK’ campaign. It’s a £6m project that promotes the UK as the first-choice study destination to international students and their influencers. International recruitment is critical to the financial health of many universities, but it is challenging and resource-intensive to effectively reach and engage with target audiences from all over the world. However, by aligning institution campaigns with the Study UK campaign – for example by echoing the same key messages about employability, quality of teaching and student experience – then this can create greater impact as a whole, rather than the two running parallel to each other.

Even better is that the British Council is keen for institutions to play an active part in the Study UK campaign; your university could take over their Instagram for a day, lead on a Facebook Live event or contribute to their blog. In most cases, their reach is going to be larger than any one institution, and there’s no cost.

The second opportunity was inspired by the value of university research that was completed with students earlier this year by Savanta ComRes. They were able to identify 5 key benefits of higher education:

  1. Enjoyment of learning
  2. Developing skills and opportunities
  3. Gaining vital life skills
  4. Building diverse networks
  5. Contributing to society

It’s obvious that many of these are related to employability; but the emphasis is much more on preparing for a fulfilling life and career, rather than any single metric. It seems to me that this is a message that is universal to the sector and not specific to one institution. As a group, we are missing an opportunity to be explicit about the broader benefits of degree-level study; instead we see a plethora of institution-specific messages that are reduced down to graduate employment rates after 6 months, or average graduate starting salaries. Applicants deserve much more insight into what it really means to study at university beyond these statistics and a collaborative approach to sharing this message would have much greater reach.

The final point is about working with our close neighbours. Whilst the importance of having a civic role is high on strategic agendas, the practicalities of ‘town vs gown’ can bring specific local challenges. Claire Whitelaw, Head of Communications and Engagement at Durham University, shared their approach to improving community relations after a significant increase in their student population was having a negative impact on the city and its permanent residents.

It was great to hear about some of the initiatives that are being taken to proactively manage relationships with their local communities and it is clear that this is another area where working in partnership can bring benefits. Where a city has two or more universities, local residents don’t differentiate between them – students are students, who cares where they are studying? – so it makes sense that the response from those institutions should also be a collective one. It’s another case where collaboration is potentially both more efficient and effective.

The Universities UK Marketing & Communications event was held on 27th November 2019.