The growth of ‘marcomms’ and the transformation of higher education

There are obvious inefficiencies in this competition as increasing resources have to be devoted to marketing and recruitment … The cost of financing higher education through the botched loan scheme means that the Treasury has insisted on an overall cap on student numbers. This creates a zero sum game where the sector is unable to expand overall and individual institutions are fighting for market share.

– Andrew McGettigan, The Great University Gamble: Money, Markets and the Future of Higher Education

(1) It’s in this climate that marketing and communications takes on a new found importance within higher education, as the situational logic within which HEIs now find themselves enmeshed creates opportunities for communications departments to approach their task of ‘managing reputation’ with a heretofore unparalleled scope and proactivity. What they do has become a core function of the university to a much greater extent than it previously was. Though how effective the ensuing initiatives tend to work is open to question. The transfer of resources to marcomms also creates opportunities for individuals, with rapidly shifting institutional priorities (and the associated transfer of resources) creating new markets for hyper-mobile consultants able to ameliorate a real or perceived internal deficiencies in these areas. This also creates a vested interest in cultivating a sense of epochal change with higher education, with the associated ‘tsunamis’, ‘avalanches’ and other cliched ways of expressing TINA. I’m not suggesting this discourse is a creation of marcomms consultants but I am suggesting they have a vested interest in perpetuating it.

(2) This empowerment of marcomms is happening concurrently with a broader digital turn within social life which is transforming the set of opportunities for ‘making public’ open to academics at a time of endemic uncertainty about future structural change in higher education and top-down ‘role stretch’ driven by the impact agenda in terms of what it is to be an ‘academic’:

By publishing we mean simply the communication and broad dissemination of knowledge, a function that has become both more complex and more important with the introduction and rapid evolution of digital and networking technologies. There is a seemingly limitless range of opportunities for a faculty member to distribute his or her work, from setting up a web page or blog, to posting an article to a working paper website or institutional repository, to including it in a peer-reviewed journal or book.

Brown, L., Griffiths, R., Rascoff, M., & Guthrie, K. (2007). University publishing in a digital age. Journal of Electronic Publishing, 10(3).

So what happens when (1) meets (2). This is the question I’ll be working on over the summer and trying to answer in my talk for the Digital Sociology panel at the Work, Employment and Society conference in September.

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