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?