The Honest Marketer

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

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?

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