University marketing: a good idea?

Every year  universities spend a fair amount of money – the precise sum will vary from year to year and from institution to institution – on marketing. Mostly this money is spent on advertising designed to attract students. Over recent years, many universities have advertised on radio or television, and on billboards or bus shelters. Some campaigns have been quite spectacular. If you consider the case for marketing from the institution’s perspective, it makes a certain amount of sense: the university has facilities and staff and needs to ensure that these are utilised in the best way possible through successful student recruitment.

It is possible, one might suppose, that some of this advertising encourages students to apply to a university where previously they had not thought of entering higher education. But then again, it is also possible that the effect of such marketing is to persuade students to favour one university over another; in other words, it is not about encouraging students to develop their intellectual maturity and their opportunities in higher education, it is about persuading them to go to a particular university.

It seems to me that marketing in a university is a necessary activity, not least because the idea of higher education needs to be kept in the public consciousness, but also because universities need to survive and prosper. Whether marketing should be seen as a competitive activity designed to gain a greater share of the same market for one particular institution could perhaps be debated. This may become a yet more acute question if, as is apparently the case in the United States, public money made available to for-profit private colleges is used to advertise their services to fee-paying students. But then again, it is not easy to see how marketing could be carried out that does not promote the specific qualities of the university and, by implication, its superiority over other institutions.

Some people in the academic community have argued that the whole concept of marketing in universities is a mistake, in particular because it often focuses on the non-academic attributes of an institution. One former admissions officer of a US university has recently described the development of marketing as follows:

‘There was a subtle move to encouraging as many applications as possible since that increased the selectivity profile (and hence, prestige and position in rankings) of the institution. There was a growing emphasis on promoting your school and that came to mean not only highlighting your academic programs but the comfort and amenities of dorm rooms, exceptional food, health-club-quality gym facilities, and endless extra-curricular activities that insure that students have fun. Colleges began producing slicker and slicker “viewbooks” that were magazines with limited text but lots of expensive photos taken by professional photographers featuring happy (usually preppy white kids with an occasional person of color who otherwise looked like everyone else). The subtext was “four happy years” at our place.’

But then again, universities are not just part of a larger public sector agency. Each individual institution needs to ensure it operates in a sustainable way, and that it generates the resources it needs to maintain and grow quality programmes. Marketing is a necessary component of that. And if you do marketing, it is entirely right to do it professionally. Furthermore, nowadays it is widely accepted that the education experience extends beyond the classroom. Nostalgia for some alleged era in which pedagogy trumped all else is, like most nostalgia, not terribly useful. But having a debate on marketing may help to ensure that its use is appropriate, and ethical. Such a debate is always worth having.

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11 Comments on “University marketing: a good idea?”

  1. V.H Says:

    I don’t know what Liz Reisberg’s problem is with photographers. You’d not have much change from £30,000 for the most basic pro camera, a ‘very’ few lenses, an iMac, plus MacBook Pro and editing software.

    The problem with marketing stems for the escalating arms race where one institution tops the spend of the one down the road only for the next year for that one to out-spend the first. So when all enter the game it become an ever vanishing nutty circle.
    I don’t know if it’s anecdotal, an urban myth if you will, but I heard when the fag companies were prevented from advertising within any jurisdiction they didn’t lose. Since the money they were spending matched the gain.
    Then there’s the problem of how you measure the gain/loss. And of course, the issue of missing the ball entirely like most universities do with their alumni mag and the Thought Experiment they call a web portal. Quite frankly if you were marketing to a bunch of 17 year old’s offering a £30 of music downloads to the first 10,000 who print out your prospectus usable in the month they fill in the application would drive more under your bumph than all the committee formed marketing which coalesces in concept about the average age and social expectation of the committee. In other words, the stuff you’d use on a 45 year old mid rank professional with diminishing eyesight to get them out to vote Tory or LibDem. :-)

    • Gordon Dent Says:

      I think there’s also a question about who your target market is. Personally, I think anybody who is dim enough to be influenced by advertising shouldn’t be going to university anyway. When engaged in outreach (i.e. marketing) activity, I always tell schoolkids not to believe anything university staff tell them – and that includes what I tell them – without substantial corroboration. They need to be getting information from current students at a number of universities if they want to be able to compare them. Even then, they should never take one person’s word for anything: an important lesson for life, not just for university application.
      Most universities agree that their students are their best salespeople. The unfortunate consequence of this is that we have more and more students being trained as “ambassadors” to spread the party’s – oops, sorry, the university’s – message. The way I work with students in my department is to make sure they can find accurate answers to factual questions (e.g. about entry requirements, proportion of assessment by exams vs in-course assignments, etc.) and leave them to get on with talking to potential applicants on social networks and web forums, through school-based outreach activities, and so on. I think having a member of staff hovering behind them would make their advice & opinions much less valuable to potential recruits. I am, however, in the fortunate position of being responsible for recruitment to a highly over-subscribed course. If I was desperate to fill places I suspect my principles might be eroded quite rapidly.

  2. Gordon Dent Says:

    “Nostalgia for some alleged era in which pedagogy trumped all else is, like most nostalgia, not terribly useful.”

    A slight digression, I know, but I take any opportunity to make this point. As a university educator, I loathe the word “pedagogy”. The etymology of the word (pædos=child, ago=lead) makes it clear that pedagogy is about the instruction of children. It has no place in adult education.

  3. no-name Says:

    You are probably aware that July 1 was the deadline for Irish secondary school students to file change of mind requests for university places. You might also be aware that UCD mounted an ad campaign, “Why choose UCD on CAO/Change of Mind”. Some reckon in to have been unethical and unworthy of a university to spend money to attract from their first choices applicants who have already acted on aspirations for a university education. It is not clear what budgets were cut in order to pay for this campaign.

    One might wonder what perceptions result among the target audience.

  4. Al Says:

    At what point does higher education marketing decrease being an investment and starts being a speculative act…

  5. Colm Murphy Says:

    An incident known as ‘The Great Texas Climbing Wall War’ a number of years ago illustates this point quite well. A small city in Texas had three private non-profit universities. One university had a rock climbing club that unexpectedly won a national rock climbing competion. The university, to show its appreciation and reward the students offered to co-fund an on campus rock climbing wall if the students would raise the balance themselves. They did so and the wall was built. Another university within the city, who considered itself the premier sporting facilities university then commenced building a rock climbing wall, and not to be outdone built its wall a few feet higher. The third university now regarded itself as being the poor relation and found itself under pressure from its students to build one, naturally being a few feet taller again. The first university however, had quickly tumbled from its smug position as being the only university in town with a climbing wall and now in the face of the other colleges loudly trumpeting their climbing wall credentials tore down its climbing wall and built a larger one to reclaim its title of having the best climbing wall. Thus, incredibly, an arms race of climbing walls was created. Eventually, sense prevailed and the facilities managers from each university brokered a peace whereby one university would build the tallest, one the most difficult and one with the most square footage and so each could claim to have the best climbing facilities. Millions wasted and not one additional student educated. The same is currently happening in Ireland between UCD, DCU and TCD in relation to student centres. Millions have been spent, and will continue to be spent, on beautiful academic and student centre buildings but is having a beautiful campus what a university should be spending its money on?

  6. James Fryar Says:

    If you’re going to spend money on a marketing campaign, then what constitutes success? What is a ‘good’ marketing campaign or a ‘bad’ one? What are the metrics employed? My issue with university marketing has always been that it seems to be something that we do because we feel we have to do it, rather that doing it to achieve some goal. I doubt that DCU, TCD, or UCD would suddenly be devoid of students if we didn’t advertise on bus shelters. So what, exactly, is the point?

    I sat the marketing board for a particularly faculty not too long ago where a few of us started to question the value of open days – we spend hours planning talks, organising schedules for lecturers to cover those talks, get equipment and demonstrations together to show students, print off thousands of leaflets and flyers, organise postgrads to cover the demonstrations, disrupt everyone’s work for tours of labs, and at the end of it, the only things the students are really interested in is a. getting the day off school and b. seeing how much free stuff (pens, paper, stickers, etc) they can accumulate.

    When we surveyed our first years, we consistently found that the top two reasons for applying to that particular institution were because a sibling or close friend had attended or because of the location of the institution relative to home.

    The only area I can see a point to marketing is in terms of international students. Domestic students will not suddenly change their minds because you stick a poster with two attractive students on the side of a bus shelter. I can confirm our intake didn’t miraculously increase after that … what did increase our intake was changing economic circumstances and media reporting of job layoffs in certain sectors.


  7. As a mother of a current UCAS applicant I have seen many kids of my son’s age being driven firstly by the content of the course, closely followed by the “prestige” of the university and likely job prospects. I do not believe that they are convinced as such by glossy brochures and adverts, but as a marketer of 20 plus years I also know that placing those adverts in strategic places and producing glossy brochures and flyers creates what I call the drip drip effect, essential for reinforcing the prestige and brand of the university even if it doesn’t have a conscious role in decision making.

    I also believe that there is opportunity for universities to start building more “marketing partnerships” with companies which could be used to reinforce their links with industry and has the potential to generate income in the form of scholarships or grants.


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