Marketisation has become a dirty word in higher education. Here's how it can be rescued from the sin bin.
Three news items caught my eye over Christmas and New Year. First was the news that the OfS is planning to come down hard on universities that offer financial incentives to students in Clearing. Second, was the prediction in The Times that all students at some universities will receive first class degrees by 2030. Third was the report this week that drop-out rates among students who had accepted unconditional offers were nearing 20% in some institutions.
Last year’s unlamented Augar report argued that “since the opening up of the sector, universities have increased and professionalised their marketing” and as evidence, cited universities spending millions on advertising, offering cash in hand inducements, inflating grades, lowering entry requirements and proliferating unconditional offers.
For me, all this is clear evidence of marketing failure. Anyone can put more bums on lecture theatre seats by lowering the bar, offering bribes and promising the illusion of a high-quality degree. This is not marketing. It’s nothing more than cheap and shoddy sales promotion that belong to the bazaar, not British higher education.
Professional marketing is about understanding your target market and delivering a product or service that fulfils their needs and wants better than competition. In most universities, this means recognising that you will live or die by your ability to attract tuition fee income. And if what you offer students is perfectly suited to what they need and want, you will not only survive but prosper.
Just as universities need to learn about the importance of being different and distinctive, so they also need to professionalise their marketing by offering degree programmes that are distinctive and competitive within their comparator groups. Check out a dozen university websites and you’ll come across generic claims, generic language, generic strategies and generic mission statements.
The same is very largely true for degree programmes. Very few make the effort to be distinctively relevant to the student audience they’re supposed to be appealing to. Why? Because they are developed by academics who on their own have neither the competitive skillset nor the customer understanding that a professional marketer brings to the table.
Which is why I argue that it is time for academia and marketing to start working hand in glove. Working together to answer questions as fundamental as why should a student choose this programme over a competitor? What is the programme’s USP? Does it understand what students are looking for? Is the programme name distinctive? Is its proposition strong enough to attract students away from a competitor?
It’s tough enough to get on a student’s UCAS short-list, which is why distinctiveness in university positioning is critical. But once you’re on that list, the programme itself is the single biggest determinant of choice. Maximising conversion from a shortlist of five is programme-driven. CRM is fine at brand level but doesn’t work at programme level. Here we’re talking about real differences, not perceptual nuances.
Making programmes distinctive, relevant and more attractive to students nourishes the university’s overall reputation. By demonstrating that your institution understands what students value and goes out of its way to deliver at programme level.
Unconditional offers, clearing ‘bursaries’ and rampant degree inflation demean not only the universities involved but the sector as a whole in the eyes of the public. Like it or not, universities are now operating in competition with each other.
To succeed in a competitive world, you need to have a product which meets customer needs better than competition. In higher education, this means academia and marketing working together to achieve a common goal.
Only then might the word ‘marketisation’ be rescued from the sin bin.
David Miller is a Consulting Fellow for Halpin - the home of expert consultants in higher education marketing, fundraising, governance and strategy.