The Honest Marketer

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

On the right track?

“The pressure is on institutions to raise their game” - these were the opening remarks at the fifth annual conference on Enhancing the Student Experience in London this week.

Professor Michael Farthing, Chair of the 1994 Group and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sussex, opened the conference by noting that with the changes in the sector over the last 12 months and the tripling of fees, “students now have the highest ever expectations and we are all going to have to work much harder to make the case for investing in higher education.”

As we approach the anniversary of the Government’s decision to support the rise in tuition fees, he pointed out that raising fees offered the only answer to the Government’s 80% cuts in university funding to enable universities to maintain let alone make improvements to the student experience, but reflected that the speed of the change was too much asking: “What else has tripled in price?”

Professor Farthing warned universities to avoid falling into the trap of reducing HE to “a set of transactions”, which he felt “grossly underestimates the value of HE”. He said that students were more than consumers purchasing a degree certificate and that “the student experience draws on every aspect of life and work and is long lasting” with “students immersing themselves in an academic environment, joining new social networks and gaining insights that will stay with them throughout their lives.”

I agreed with much of the sentiment of Professor Farthing’s address. What I took issue with were his comments that “research intensive universities offer the best teaching experience” where students are taught by the people who write the text books and have “access to a culture of innovation“. Given the institutions he represents, his perspective is to be expected, but I think that his own view underestimates the value of HE in the many other types of institution that are not research intensive. (And, yes, having spent a career working mostly in universities that are not research intensive, with a father who lectured in a former Polytechnic, my perspective is also to be expected).

Don’t get me wrong, research does have a critical role: it is a fundamental part of academia and greatly benefits our society and economy. When that research can inform and enhance teaching, students undoubtedly benefit - they have an opportunity to shape, learn from and experience new ideas. But research is not the only means of generating a good (or indeed the best student experience) or a culture of innovation: it can be achieved through other aspects in the broader learning and teaching experience - student partnership, engagement with industry/the professions, development of employability skills and so on. To suggest otherwise is somewhat of an injustice.

By far the majority of the conference chose to focus on student partnership as a means of improving the student experience. Liam Burns, President of the National Union of Students, said that there needed to be “a redistribution of power” and that engagement with students needed to be part of what drives the system. Student consultation does already exist in universities with student representation on most key committees, but I liked his idea of students taking an active role in agreeing the strategic direction and planning of universities with a voice in all key decisions and co-sign-off of strategic documents.

I was delighted when Sean Mackney,
Deputy Chief Executive of the Higher Education Academy, pulled out BCU’s Student Partnership Scheme, which pairs up students with academics to improve the learning experience, as a best practice example of "continuous student engagement in an institution that's committed to continuous improvement in its learning and teaching". See He’s not alone in his views - the scheme won the 2010 Times Higher Education Outstanding Support for Students Award.

Sean too acknowledged the need for a change in the power relationships between students and staff with a “sharing of power” that sees “students take responsibility for learning and universities involving them as a member of the learning community”. Describing this scenario as adding challenge and vibrancy to the relationship, he explained: “Students learn better when they are actively engaged with the curriculum, co-curricular activity and the University itself”.

Though we have world-leading and world-class research in Art and Design, Music, English, Social Work and Social Policy and Administration, Birmingham City University is not a research intensive university. However, we have an award-winning Student Academic Partnership scheme that is now being expanded as part of a Change Academy project. We recently employed our outgoing President of the Students’ Union to review student communications as part of enhancing the student experience. And the second objective of our new Corporate Plan is: “To be an exemplar for student engagement, working in partnership with students to create and deliver an excellent university experience and achieve high levels of student satisfaction and graduate employment.”

The pressure is on and, like many universities, we’ve got a long way to go. But I think we’re on the right track when it comes to developing and delivering the best student experience.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Don’t let fees put you off…

You can still afford to go to University. That was the resounding message from the panel of experts at Birmingham’s launch of National Student Finance Day today.

The local event, spearheaded and hosted by Birmingham City University, was attended by over 80 teachers, parents and pupils from seven of the region’s schools and colleges. Events are being held up and down the country as part of the first ever National Student Finance Day, which has been initiated by the Independent Taskforce on Student Finance.

Former NUS Presidents Aaron Porter and Wes Streeting joined Birmingham City University Vice-Chancellor Professor David Tidmarsh, Aston University Senior Pro-Vice-Chancellor Professor Helen Higson, University of Birmingham Guild President Mark Harrop and BCU’s Director of Student Services Pamela Bell-Ashe to share their views on the new system of student finance to be implemented in 2012.

Wes Streeting, Deputy Head of the Independent Taskforce on Student Finance, announced a raft of new information, including a mobile phone app ‘unifees2012‘, with helpful hints and plain-speaking guidance on student finances now available at

The main advice given to the audience was to ’do your homework’ when you are considering university - to find out as much information as possible from the universities themselves, from the many user review websites and sources like Aaron Porter was quick to stress that “visiting universities is the best way to get a sense of whether going to university is the right decision for you”.

A quick straw poll of the audience by David Tidmarsh, whose daughter is in the process of applying to university, revealed that there are a number of individuals who feel uncertain about the new finance arrangements and as such are having second thoughts about university. David summed up the panel’s feelings when he said it would be a terrible shame if people were put off going to university because of the cost, not only for the individuals themselves, but also because of the serious impact it will have on the country’s economy and skills capabilities.

Aaron felt that the natural ‘complexity’ of the funding arrangements was to blame for the confusion and misunderstanding. Research conducted recently by the Independent Taskforce found that 59% of people in England have little or no understanding of the new fee arrangements. One college said that many of its students were now giving real consideration as to whether or not to go to university because of the rising cost.

Mark Harrop viewed this tendency towards greater consideration as one of the positives of the changes to the system. He said that individuals are more likely to spend more time researching their options to find the course and the university that is right for them, which can only be a good thing. Helen Higson felt that another positive would be the focus by universities in delivering better teaching and learning and providing more financial incentives to help those from poorer socio-economic backgrounds.

Speaking about the practicalities of the new student finance arrangements, Wes noted that “students under the new regime will actually pay less in monthly repayments than students currently do now”. He relayed some of the key facts of the new system - that students don't have to pay anything up front, they will only start repaying when they are earning above £21,000 and will then only pay 9% of anything over £21,000. He pointed out that the debt is written off after 30 years and that the monthly repayments are the same regardless of whether the tuition fee is £6,000 or £9,000.

One prospective student raised concerns about the size of debt that would be accrued. Wes acknowledged that if fees were higher and the debt was therefore larger, students would be paying it off over a longer period of time, but he re-iterated the fact that the debt is wiped out after 30 years. David added that this is where 'value for money' comes into the equasion; students should be looking at what they are getting for the different fees being charged.

Another concern from the audience related to portraying the value of Higher Education over a lifetime. One college tutor, who is a strong advocate of university education, shared his own experience of leaving school with two GCSEs and now being in his fifties with a son who, by comparison, has recently graduated and is now earning £30 per hour, which is more than he has ever earned. “I wish I’d known then what I know now” were his words of advice to the many prospective students in the room.

Answering the question of value, Aaron explained that the standard figures given are that graduates will on average earn around £100,000 more than their non-graduate counterparts over a career, but for some professions, such as doctors or lawyers, the sums are even greater. Wes added that while there has been much publicity about unemployment, it is important to remember that while there is 20% youth unemployment, the outlook for graduates is actually more positive with around 10% unemployment for those aged 21 and over. “There’s never been a better time to be in education or training,” he advised, though he did stress that this didn’t just mean a university education and that young people should consider other options, like college or apprenticeships.

There was concern raised about the fact that some universities are seeking to change their fees and how individuals would be able to find out which universities were doing this. Aaron said that he was working with the Office of Fair Access, which was currently considering how best to relay the information without providing an unfair advantage to those universities who will effectively be announcing their fees for a second time. Helen also pointed out that universities will not be able to disadvantage students when changing their fees.

One prospective student raised the issue of studying abroad with many universities in Europe offering substantially lower fees. Pamela said that those considering studying abroad should do their research in the same way they would if they were looking at a British university - to make sure the course is taught in English, to investigate the teaching and learning quality and so on. David added that if prospective students are looking at European universities they should be asking how many students usually complete their studies and the time it takes to complete study as this is often longer in Europe.

Understanding whether fee arrangements will change once a student begins studying was one parent’s primary concern. Pamela pointed out the fee regime under which student first enter higher education will remain throughout their studies. Other than inflationary rises, the cost will not increase substantially and the same financial regulations will apply throughout the duration of study.

And finally the point was made that universities are fairly good at targeting prospective students with information, but that it is parents and teachers who have a real influence over the end decision. One parent was worried that if parents or teachers don’t fully understand the implications of the new fee system, they could deter individuals from going to university because of the worry of debt. Helen said that in Birmingham four of the universities have teamed up to ensure that the work of Aimhigher continues which provides information and activities to schools and colleges. She added that most universities already work with schools and colleges and are increasingly providing tailored information for parents too. Parents were urged to visit the university websites; Birmingham City University offers a Parents’ Guide (see


Thursday, 10 November 2011

Universities: Collaboration not competition in the new fee regime?

Next Monday (November 14) sees the Birmingham launch of National Student Finance Day with the city’s three main universities - Birmingham City, Aston and Birmingham - working together to promote two common causes - the value of higher education and the true facts of student finance (

The day kicks off with a keynote address from Wes Streeting, Deputy Head of the Independent Taskforce on Student Finance, followed by a panel discussion with Wes, who is also Chief Executive of the Helena Kennedy Foundation, representatives from all three universities and Aaron Porter, former President of the National Union of Students. The launch culminates with online advice sessions hosted at each of the universities.

There is a strong track record of collaboration between Aston, Birmingham and Birmingham City, which started five years ago with a joint web initiative in partnership with Marketing Birmingham - Birmingham Live and Learn - to raise awareness of Birmingham as a student city. Content has since been amalgamated into the Visit Birmingham website.

University College Birmingham and Newman University College also joined the existing partnership, which went on to produce a Lonely Planet Guide and subsequent iphone app, short listed in the 2011 THE Leadership and Management Awards for Outstanding Marketing/Communications Team.

Most recently, four of the universities (Aston, Birmingham, Birmingham City and UCB) took a national lead in safeguarding access to university education, launching in October the Birmingham and Solihull Aimhigher regional partnership. Set up with support from over 50 schools, academies and colleges following the loss of Government funding for the national Aimhigher initiative, the partnership will continue to give young people from disadvantaged backgrounds access to a range of exciting activities to motivate them to realise their potential. Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats Simon Hughes, congratulating the partners at the launch, described it as having ’energy and imagination’.

As someone who has played a lead role in initiating the collaboration, in terms of the Lonely Planet Guide and Student Finance Day, I have been delighted with the results of our partnership to date and can see a continuing relationship - when we can pool resources on projects that benefit us all equally.

For me, there are a number of key reasons why this collaboration, possibly unique in the sector, has been possible.

Differentiation: The universities in Birmingham are all very confident of their individual positions in the marketplace and currently there is very little competitive overlap - particularly among the main three. We all recognise that prospective students need to attend the university that is right for them; it’s not in any of our interests to have students make a bad choice which leads to dissatisfaction, transfer or drop out. As undergraduate markets contract, as seems likely, only time will tell whether this differentiation remains so significant as to allow us to put differences aside to come together, but I am confident the track record will help facilitate that come what may.

Effectiveness and efficiency: Without a shadow of a doubt, projects like the dedicated student website and Lonely Planet Guide would not have been possible for one university to pursue alone - the costs would have been prohibitive. It made both common and business sense to pool our dwindling marketing budgets to achieve something greater together than we could ever do independently. We are currently working together to commission our own pocket guide to Birmingham - paying for the Lonely Planet brand was becoming too expensive.

Common ground: The strength of the partnership has been the underlying simplicity of the aims of the various initiatives. We have run with broad top level issues - promoting the city, encouraging access, raising awareness of student finances. These aspects are fundamental to the work we do in Higher Education - regardless of the particular market we target or the courses we offer. As long as we continue to identify and focus on common goals, there should always be the possibility of further partnership activity.

Mediation: The projects that have involved financial contributions have been greatly assisted by the involvement of an independent broker. In the case of the promotional projects, this at times difficult role fell to Marketing Birmingham. With any partnership there are always going to be a few problems along the way. As contributions varied according to the size of institution, there have been issues that related to the universities getting what they considered to be a ‘fair deal‘ for their money in comparison to others. Marketing Birmingham was able to provide objective advice and solutions - sometimes just reminding us politely of the end goal.

And finally. People who work in marketing tend to be a particular personality type. For the majority, we are natural optimists. We love what we do and feel passionately about the causes we market, which for Higher Education ultimately is about helping people achieve. When you feel so strongly about something that can have such a positive and long-lasting impact, you can usually see the bigger picture and leave the squabbling and rivalry at the door. Long may that continue.

Friday, 4 November 2011

An unexpected resurrection on Halloween

It was probably rather fitting that the much anticipated UCAS Admissions Review consultation paper was officially published on All Hallow’s Eve. On a day which traditionally honours the dead, the main thrust of the recommendations appear to simply resurrect the concept of post-qualification application - though UCAS refers to ‘post-results application’.

Post-qualification application is by no means a new concept. It was a key recommendation of the 1997 Dearing Report, which noted that admission to an institution based on actual achievement rather than predicted results “would assist students since they know more about their abilities (and possibly their interests) having received their examination results and having studied for longer.” Mentioned again as part of an enquiry into A-Level grading back in 2002 by educationalist Sir Michael Tomlinson, it went on to rear its head in Professor Steven Schwartz’ Fair Admission to Higher Education report two years later.

I have to admit to being rather surprised at this latest review (though I may have been alone in this) having attended a presentation with my marketing director peers back in June when the clear being message given by UCAS was that post qualification application was favoured by neither universities or applicants.

Just four months ago, we were told that universities were concerned “that a PQA system with compressed timescales would inevitably lead to a more mechanistic approach with greater emphasis being placed on qualifications held rather than future potential - undermining efforts around the use of contextual information and mitigating against applicants who have just fallen short of their grades.” Universities had indicated shorter timescales would “also create difficulties for admissions to the most selective courses where most, if not all, applicants will have excellent exam results” and had “concerns that within a PQA system, applicants who meet the minimum entry requirements for a course might expect to be admitted.”

UCAS informed us that schools and applicants were sceptical that there would be enough time for the whole admissions process to take place between exam results and the start of the HEI term, saying “students would need to make their application as well as arrange university accommodation during this short window. Some may also need to attend university interviews and/or take additional tests.“ In its research, UCAS found only 10% of respondents thought there was too much time between applying to university and actually going, while only 2% think there is too much time for researching choices.

Most ironic of all, UCAS advised then that “the application period could be extended, but neither earlier exam results (and therefore earlier exams) nor later academic term start dates appeal to schools and applicants.” A little odd then, that this is pretty much what they have gone on to recommend. From my perspective, nothing much has changed - other than the increasing pressure being placed on universities because of reduced funding, downward application trends in both home and international markets and a future of staggered fee payments.

In fairness to UCAS, it has embarked on an impossible task. I think we all agree that the current system of application has its problems. It is based on predicted grades which are more likely to be incorrect. A study of the 2009 UCAS admissions process for BIS found only 52% of predicted grades were accurate and when looking at groups of results for individual applicants, fewer that 10% of applicants have three accurate predictions.

We all accept that there are plenty of inefficiencies within the current system: insurance offers don’t really work, processing applications for five choices is an extremely cumbersome and labour intensive process for both UCAS and universities, and Clearing is stressful and confusing. That said, despite all of its problems, for the majority of applicants, it does work; there are plenty of comments from students in response to news stories who say exactly that.

For me, while post-results/qualification application would resolve the issue of grading accuracy, it creates plenty of others. Putting the impact and cost of changing exam and term dates aside, I simply cannot see how universities could develop a workable solution which compresses the bulk of applications (with accompanying interviews, portfolio submissions and auditions) into a three-month period between the end of June and beginning of October.

Post-qualification application is an important issue and one that deserves full consideration. Whatever the outcome of the UCAS review, it is clear that PQA - described by education ministers as “difficult and contentious” back in 2005 - remains so six years on.

Friday, 26 August 2011

Spare a thought for university administrators this Clearing

For years there has been widespread publicity about the number of disappointed prospective students in Clearing. This week saw predictions of 100,000 missing out on a place this September because they either didn’t get the grades needed or secure a place in the world of capped student numbers we now live in. But spare a thought for the university administrators...

Clearing is a stressful time for prospective students and quite rightly the focus is on the panic and anxiety they face. However, Clearing is becoming equally as stressful for those managing the recruitment process. Hitting the strict target on full-time undergraduate numbers is as much a lottery as the Clearing process itself. Universities face severe penalties if they overshoot targets – a £3K plus fine for every student over-recruited and the possibility that targets will be reduced in future years.

It’s not as simple as just recruiting the number of students you need and then pulling out of the process. There are a myriad of variables and uncertainties throughout the recruitment process which make predicting the numbers who will go on to enrol as scientific as staring into a crystal ball.

Not every student who accepts an unconditional offer will turn up. Of those given a conditional offer – some will not meet the grade requirements and others, again, will choose to go elsewhere, particularly if they get higher grades than anticipated. Insurance offers are completely unpredictable – in the past most insurance offers almost never came to their second choice institution, but with higher fees looming from 2012 it’s reasonable to assume that this behaviour will change as people try to enter Higher Education under the current fee regime.

Conditional university offers are dependent on results, most typically A-Level results which is why the Clearing process is perceived to begin on A-Level results day. In fact, Clearing begins much earlier and lasts much longer as many students are waiting on International, Access, BTEC and National Diploma results which are released at varying times. GCSE results came out yesterday and there will be students who have had to retake English or Maths to gain the minimum ‘C’ grade needed for some courses. Universities will have no idea how many of their conditional offers will be taken up until all of these results are confirmed and the universities have been notified by the students themselves (or UCAS if they are A-Level results).

Many universities have raised their entry requirements to try to increase the ‘quality’ of students they recruit, not least because this impacts on the wider student experience for all students, but also because it leads to greater retention and progression, which in turn impacts income and league table performance.

Students apply to a particular university based on the entry requirements published, but when it comes to A-Level results, universities are guided by the ‘predictions’ from schools or colleges. Unfortunately, these are not always very accurate. At Birmingham City University, this year, we experienced greater inaccuracy in predictions than previous years, which is distressing for the students, but also means that we found ourselves with places to recruit in Clearing that would otherwise have been filled much earlier in the recruitment process as our applications have risen year on year over the last three years.

Academic Planning and Admissions departments have developed sophisticated conversion models at course level to try to predict the number of students who will progress in each of the scenarios above, but over the last two years we’ve seen very different behaviour in student conversion with conversion generally rising in each scenario. Nothing is certain and managing numbers has to be done on a daily basis at course level, which is why prospective students will see courses being moved ‘in and out’ of Clearing. It’s also why we are encouraging people to check the list of courses on our Clearing pages at on a daily basis.

All in all, Clearing has become a lottery for everyone involved and the Government cap on numbers, as far as I can see, isn’t helping anyone.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Media madness – but who’s to blame?

Nobody could fail to be anything but horrified at the latest claims that the phones of Milly Dowler, Holly Wells, Jessica Chapman and a number of servicemen were hacked by private investigators working for the media. It’s quite rightly been dubbed as “one of the biggest scandals in public life for decades” and everyone is – naturally – quick to criticise the media concerned, which has ultimately led to the closure of the paper this Sunday.
But as we happily pointed the finger, I do think we need to take a closer look at our own consumption of media and whether we share any part in the blame.

Having started out my career working as a journalist, I do feel some sympathy with the media – not that I in any way condone the recent events. The traditional print media faces a very challenging climate where news and information is much more freely available. To continue to make a profit journalists are being driven to find every angle in a story – ideally different to that of their competitors – because it’s what sells papers. The News of the World appears to have been the extreme point of a continuum in which most other media also sit when it comes to the means justifying the end.

When you consider it, the practice of interfering to find intimate news is one that is well established – though admittedly ‘doorstepping’ is legal. This accepted practice is driven purely by the public’s desire to want to know more when something horrific, tragic or criminal occurs. Some people will quite happily open up their lives for publicity and some journalists enjoy the thrill of persuading individuals to do this. It was never for me. One of the reasons I chose to take my career in a different direction was because of the increasing desire to probe into the most tragic moments of everyday life. I particularly recall the accidental death of a young boy by strangulation, which occurred one Sunday. As the only reporter on duty, it was up to me to find the name of the victim – as the police don’t reveal these details – by whatever means possible. In the end I discovered the identity from a group of schoolchildren who had known the youngster and my next step was to approach the parents. I actually never did. On arriving at the house and seeing a group of people clearly extremely distressed and agitated, the photographer and I took the decision to leave them to their grief. I did get the story – or ‘tribute’ – from a neighbour, but I felt extremely uncomfortable and I don’t regret my decision (though my old Editor would not be best pleased).

As a journalist I felt that I should not approach others unless I would be prepared to provide an interview in a similar situation. As a parent, I’m just not convinced that giving an interview after the death of one of my children (God forbid) – even if it was intended to be a tribute piece – would be my top priority. Yet, if I’m honest, I remain as curious as the next when tragedy and misfortune touches someone else’s life.

The hard truth is that ‘we’, the public, demand the ins and outs of these stories and we’ll happily read the headlines that no doubt arose from some of this phone hacking. Just look at how many gossip magazines have been created in the last decade. We want to know every aspect of a celebrity’s, politician’s, criminal’s or victim’s life and it doesn’t really bother us (at the time) who the ‘close source’ who reveals the information is.

The wakeup call for me into how low human behaviour can sink when it comes to curiosity (or sheer nosiness) is the shocking trial of Florida’s Casey Anthony, who was cleared this week of murdering her two-year-old daughter Caylee. The trial became a media circus which was fuelled by the press and led to tourists queuing from 5am to get seats in the gallery. I may be being cynical, but I somehow doubt their motivation was a genuine concern for the tragic death of a beautiful little girl.
The News of the World may now be doomed, but I don’t think that entirely solves the problem (and worse still, this decision penalises dozens of innocent individuals who had nothing to do with the behaviour being criticised). The demand for that type of news clearly still exists and we’ll seek it out. The root cause of the problem is being pushed underground and potentially we are just transferring the pressure (or the temptation) to meet this demand to another media source.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

A personal perspective on the White Paper

Having spent an afternoon trawling through the Government White Paper, it left me perplexed. I'm struggling to see how universities, like mine, despite our rising popularity will benefit, but I'm trying to remain open-minded. This is my personal perspective and my comments on the points that particularly stood out to me.

The report is launched with a foreword that begins: "Our university sector has a proud history and a world-class reputation, attracting students from across the world". That’s true and it’s nice to see the Government acknowledge this, but we won't for much longer with the restrictions the UK Border Agency is putting in place. The message overseas is not a positive one and other countries are being quick to capitalize on the opportunities to divert international students their way.

The second sentence I found particularly amusing as it stated that "Higher Education is a successful public-private partnership: Government funding and institutional autonomy". Unless I'm missing something, the Government funding seems to be reducing and, the last time I checked, autonomy means ‘self-government’, which is hardly the case when our full-time undergraduate numbers are strictly monitored and there is a Government-imposed limit on what we can charge for our services. The partnership, I’d suggest, is an increasingly uneasy one.

The foreword goes on to tell universities that we will be under competitive pressure "to provide better quality and lower cost". How exactly – with a magic wand? Where else does low cost mean better quality?

The Paper itself starts with an admission that “Higher Education has a fundamental value in itself” (I wholeheartedly agree) and that “the challenge [universities] face is putting the undergraduate experience at the heart of the system”. Again, true, but excuse me, I would suggest that most universities have been focusing on putting the student experience at the heart of what we do for some time now because if we don’t, we won’t have any students. I’m also not convinced that restricting student numbers, cutting funding and limiting university income potential are the really best ways to do this.

It points out that “the current system of controls limits student choice because institutions are prevented from expanding in response to demand from applicants”. This has been one of my biggest frustrations: UCAS applications to Birmingham City University rose 63% in a period where our numbers were capped. The Paper talks about creating “a more dynamic sector in which popular institutions can grow”, which sounds fantastic until you take a look at the criteria for releasing places. The Government is going to allow unconstrained recruitment of roughly 65,000 high-achieving students scoring the equivalent of AAB or above – okay, so that keeps the Russell Group happy. It’s also going to create a flexible margin of about 20,000 places to reward universities and colleges “who combine good quality with value for money and whose average tuition charge (after fee waivers) is at or below £7,500 per year.” But what exactly constitutes good quality and value for money and how much influence will the price have on the decision to award extra places? What if, as a result, your university doesn’t meet the eventual criteria but remains one of the most popular? It doesn’t sound like the “level playing field” the Government is keen to foster.

Where I think the Government has it right in terms of creating real market forces is the focus on transparency when it comes to our performance. I do support the plans to “radically improve and expand the information available to prospective students”. Universities should be proud of what they have to offer and unafraid of the indicators that benchmark them. And, in a university where we are leading the way in student engagement (on the back of our THE ‘Outstanding support for Students’ win last year), it’s not surprising that I support the move towards greater student feedback and consultation. Our services should be market-driven.

I do fundamentally agree – though I might not like the personal implications for my family – of having a system where the beneficiaries make a larger contribution to their costs on a “pay as you earn” basis. What I’m less comfortable with are plans to charge a levy on those who want to pay off their loans early. Consultation on the Early Repayment is taking place now and, following all the negative publicity about the fee rises, it’s particularly important we get this right.  To make sure your voice is heard, visit

On the whole, for me, the White Paper raises more questions than it answers and is somewhat self-contradictory. I do sympathize with the “enormous deficit” and resulting “spending pressures” the Government has inherited, but I am particularly anxious about plans to reduce the core allocation of student numbers at universities every year, particularly if the focus on additional numbers remains cost-driven and on an assumption that better quality equates to lower cost.

Against all odds - marketing British universities in 2011

Barely a day goes by these days without another headline screaming from the nationals about the extortionate future cost of a degree. What with the ongoing saga of the UK Border Agency and the new warnings of the risk of extremism on campus, I’m beginning to wonder ‘What next?’

I’ve been marketing universities for over 15 years – Nottingham, Wolverhampton, Northampton and now Birmingham City – and never before has it been as challenging to convey the genuine advantages of a university education as it is now. The only positive from my perspective is that Marketing is certainly in the spotlight!

The damaging publicity about the rising cost of a degree for UK full-time students is so frustrating; particularly for someone who is marketing a variable fee that we believe is fair given the circumstances and in terms of what this University can offer prospective students.

The message that you don’t have to pay for a degree up front is clearly not getting through. It is such a shame.

In fairness, the Government is trying. Its ‘Make Your Future Happen’ campaign has lots of information to counteract some of the myths about the cost post-2012 and repayment. Unfortunately, the Government has to be seen to be fair to all of the options post-18, so it isn’t conveying the benefits of university alongside this campaign – and while I accept that’s clearly the job of universities – it is a bit of a problem when all people see is the cost. There are three paragraphs on the benefits of Higher Education elsewhere within the directgov site, but that’s it.

There is so much evidence to demonstrate the value of a university education and even with higher tuition fees, the cost over a lifetime career is fractional. The student loan repayment amounts are negligible – just check out directgov’s repayment calculator at and pick a career. A Sales Executive on a salary of £25K will have a weekly take home of £379 and pay back just £8 a week on their student loan!

Concerns about UK undergraduate students aside, what is particularly worrying is the fact that there’s evidence to suggest (from colleagues elsewhere in the sector) that the popular phrase being bandied about by the media that the ‘cost has tripled’ – which incidentally isn’t the case for all courses and all universities – is now causing confusion in the postgraduate and international markets too.

It would appear that some postgraduate students are now anxious that their courses are going to triple in price – certainly not the case at Birmingham City University or the majority of other universities I am in contact with. The fact is that most postgraduate courses will probably stay at a similar price because we know that people otherwise won’t be able to afford them.

International students are worried that their fees – which have always been higher to reflect the fact there was no Government funding to begin with – are due to rise phenomenally too. Again, not true.

And let’s be honest, part-time students are completely confused. They have no idea what they’ll pay, what support they’ll be entitled to and how and when they have to pay it back.

In university marketing departments up and down the UK, we’ll keep battling on, pushing out the graduate case studies, highlighting our links with employers and what we are doing to enhance our students' employability. But at this rate it’ll be a minor miracle if anyone turns up to university in 2012 and I come back to my initial question. What next?

Should universities advertise?

As Birmingham City University launches its ‘Upgrade your future’ campaign to demonstrate how we deliver a student experience that gives students the skills employer want and combat the negative publicity around rising costs of HE, it will only be a matter of time before we receive the inevitable question – how much did it cost?

Whenever a University dares to re-brand, develop its website or launch a marketing campaign, the spotlight is immediately and often publicly drawn to the thousands of pounds being spent on these endeavours. The general criticism is that universities are spending “tax payers’ money” – but is this accurate any more and is it justified?

Public funding to universities has been decreasing at phenomenal rates over the last decade and increasingly universities are having to source income from elsewhere – not only additional tuition fees from students themselves, but also third stream income and, in many cases, voluntary giving. Over the last three years, funding to the University through the Funding Councils has fallen by nearly 25 per cent and now represents less than a third of the University’s total income.

What about our motivations for advertising? Are we wasting money that should be diverted instead to enhance the teaching experience – implied in the criticisms we receive – or is this a fundamental part of any business.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that every business, organisation and charity promotes itself in some way. From the adverts in Yellow Pages and local newspapers placed by smaller businesses to multi-million pound global advertising of companies like Nike and Microsoft and the direct mail and television campaigns of charities like the NSPCC and Marie Curie, advertising is a means to an end. People don’t come knocking on your door (or website as is increasingly the call to action) unless you first tell them who you are, what you do and give them a reason to want to find out more. Universities are no different.

There are now hundreds of universities and colleges in the UK and if we genuinely want students and businesses to find the university that’s right for them and their individual needs, we have to give them the information they need to make that decision and first point them in the right direction. Advertising remains the quickest way to do this, though we are all looking at the new channels provided by social media and remain reliant on some of the traditional channels of media coverage, school liaison and word-of-mouth.

The Chartered Institute of Marketing’s 2010 Marketing Trends Survey found the average marketing spend as a percentage of turnover (excluding marketing salaries) for all UK organisations to be 7.29%. For public sector/charity it is 6.55%, compared with 7.79% for the financial services sector. Having worked at four universities, I can tell you that my budgets have never been anywhere near these levels – I generally benchmark at about 2%.

The reason I’ll make do with my 2% is that I believe investment in the teaching, research and business experience should quite rightfully be the priority for universities, but in order to ensure that the right people access these services, there has to be marketing spend as well. Why not let individual universities decide the balance of that spend and respect the professional decisions being made? In what can only be described as a very difficult financial climate, no university is going to be taking financial decisions lightly. So, please give us a break. Why not focus on the messages of our advertising – and the value in what we deliver as educational establishments – rather than the cost?