A seriously depressing article appeared in the Sunday Times last weekend (22nd July) on how a number of British universities are resorting to desperation tactics in order to attract the brightest students. This in a year when the number of student applicants is down to its lowest level in a decade.
No names, no pack drill, but apparently such is the level of their desperation that some universities are offering huge cash bribes, (aka posher-sounding scholarships) free airline tickets, free gym memberships and even football tickets in an attempt to persuade anyone with decent grades to go firm with them. Worse, the number of unconditional offers being made now exceeds 10% of UCAS applications, despite the evidence now readily available that students with unconditional offers take their foot of the gas and enter university with grades significantly lower than predicted.
This is not marketing. It is sales promotion of the cheapest and most demeaning kind. And it won’t work. Any student who is predicted AAB+ is going to focus on getting into the best university they can. ‘Best’ measured by overall reputation and history not just their most recent ranking. Students know when they are being bribed to go to an institution with a weaker reputation. They are some of the savviest consumers on the planet and prone to using social media to show their peer group how successful, fulfilled and happy they are. They will not be deflected into choosing a weaker university brand when they know that their decision will live with them for the rest of their lives.
Instead of coming up with cheap promotional offers typical of car dealers’ forecourts – offers which scream desperation – universities should focus on building their reputations. Notice the word ‘reputation’ not ‘ranking’. With over 130 universities in the UK, only a few will ever achieve high ranking, and they are not all Russell Group. Yet examine the websites, the mission statements and the claims, and you could be mistaken for thinking that there were at least a hundred research-intensive universities in Britain. Who do they think they are kidding? Maybe themselves but certainly not prospective students.
Take the universities which are portraying themselves as generic premium brands, when the truth is that most of their students are looking for a great vocational launchpad. No wonder such institutions are seeing declining enrolments – one institution has declined by over 35% in the past five years. These institutions are not being true to themselves.
A professional market-led organisation would first make an honest appraisal of their student intake. Understand what they want from their university. Understand their mindset, their abilities, their ambitions. Where they want to be when they leave. Armed with this understanding, the university would then tailor its offer accordingly, not to the whims of its academics. Better to be a brilliant vocational university than a mediocre ‘academic’ university which produces a meagre amount of 2* research. To thine own self be true.
Strong brands are invariably built on values, not facts. Think VW. Red Bull. Netflix. ASOS. Since we use the word reputation’ rather than brand in HE, decide what your values are – make sure they are relevant to your students – and develop a programme portfolio and student experience which brings them alive. And deliver this consistently over a decade or three. Brands – and reputations – take time to build in higher education.
Strong brands don’t need desperation tactics to win customers. Strong brands are distinctive and self-confident. The confidence that comes from knowing your customers and knowing that they are really happy with you.
David Miller is a Consulting Fellow for Halpin.