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.