The news from UCAS that over a third of students in England, Wales & Northern Ireland received an unconditional offer in the last cycle reminds us how many universities are scraping the bottom of the barrel.
What started off in the Midlands a few years ago has now spread like wildfire across the country. It’s particularly galling to me as a marketeer that this is being blamed on ‘marketisation’ when it’s the very opposite of what a decent marketer would recommend. Strong brands do not discount. Weak brands discount before they wither and die.
On the high street, department stores have suffered the most. In trying to be all things to all, they end up having no particular strengths at all. So it is with many universities, who pose as Russell Group manqués, but come recruitment season behave like DFS.
Go to the discussion boards on The Student Room and you’ll see how prospective students talk about universities that offer unconditional offers. They perceive them as weak and desperate, a last resort. A minority might find them attractive, but the majority respect those that stand firm on conditional offers and work to achieve the required standards. Who wants to be associated with a weak brand?
Unconditional offers undermine all the work the University is doing elsewhere to boost its reputation and its ranking. What they say to students is that the university is not strong enough to compete on quality, so it has to hoist the equivalent of a permanent SALE! sign up on its website, contradicting everything else it is doing to do to boost its reputation.
You can’t have it both ways. You are either a quality institution with a published tariff or you’re cheap and cheerful and will do anything to make a sale. The former will survive and prosper. The latter will go to the wall.
The current demographic dip is being blamed by many but it’s small and not going to last much longer. It’s time to strengthen your student proposition, not get into an unwinnable discounting war. By communicating what makes your university distinctive, by delivering what your particular student customers really value, by focusing on the 20% of your programmes that contribute 80% of your income, and by divesting the really weak.
Playing to your strengths is invariably a winning strategy. Unconditional offers discount your reputation. They’re a zero-sum game and nobody wins in a zero-sum game.
David Miller is a Consulting Fellow for Halpin Partnership – a leading higher education management consultancy. Follow us on LinkedIn for more insight, news and comment.