Amongst the many analyses, insights and recommendations in the Augar report, the evidence of the sector’s failure to adopt professional marketing practice becomes all too clear.
Many universities appear to think that marketing is about short-term promotional tactics designed to fill places. In section three of the report, concerning Market Competition, Augar states that “since the opening up of the sector, universities have increased and professionalised their marketing” and as evidence, cites universities spending millions on advertising, offering cash in hand inducements, inflating grades, lowering entry requirements and proliferating unconditional offers.
For me this is clear evidence of marketing failure, the very opposite of what Augar suggests. Anyone can put more bums on lecture theatre seats by lowering the bar and promising the illusion of a high-quality degree.
The truth is that good marketing is about understanding your target market and delivering a product or service that fulfils their needs and desires better than competition. In most universities, this means recognising that you will live or die by your ability to attract tuition fee income. That if what you offer students is perfectly suited to what they need and want, you will not only survive but prosper.
This of course requires you to be clear about the students you are capable of attracting, know where they will come from, and possess real insight into what they want from their university experience. It often requires more of a focus on vocationally oriented degrees, an understanding of local and regional employer needs, and a serious commitment to meeting them. Most of all, it requires honesty about what you are and who you serve.
Many so-called ‘civic’ universities already recognise this and are delivering - enjoying the success & financial security that results.
But there are many universities who cling to generic mission statements, publicly presenting themselves as Russell Group manqués, when their tuition fee income is 20 times that of their research income. Their implicit snobbery and lack of brand honesty leads to a debilitating dichotomy between how they present themselves and how they are seen from the outside.
Their student numbers decline as a result, and they are forced into desperation tactics, which Augar mistakes for marketing. Marketing people talk of brand, when the higher education word is ‘reputation’. There is a big difference. Brand is as much about how you project yourself as much as how you are seen. Hence marketers’ affection for spending on advertising.
Reputation is about what people think and feel about you. And no amount of advertising is going to change people’s views about a university. Would you ever choose a restaurant that advertises? No, you choose based on recommendations from people you trust. In other words, reputation.
It’s the same with universities. Reputation. Reputation. Reputation. It’s (nearly) all that matters. Slow to build, quick to destroy.
David Miller is a Consulting Fellow for Halpin Partnership. Tomorrow, he discusses the impact that HE’s failure in marketing is having on access and participation.