The Honest Marketer

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.

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