Marketing the Digital University

In the excellent Lower Ed, Tressie McMillan Cottom reflects on the market-orientation of for-profit colleges, tending to seek a continual growth in student numbers. This growth imperative can manifest itself in marketing and recruitment outstripping teaching in institutional spending. From pg 20:

If budgets are moral documents, the fact that some financialized for-profit colleges reportedly spent 22.4 percent of all revenue on marketing, advertising, recruiting, and admissions staffing compared with 17.7 percent of all revenue, on instruction speaks to the morals of financialization

Since the previous Labour government kicked off the radical changes in higher education in the UK, I’ve been interested in the transformation of university marketing. The reforms created a pressure to differentiate but to what extent did that incentivise the growth of marketing and communications at the (potential) expense of investment elsewhere? I hadn’t thought about this issue for a while but it occurs to me that the extreme end of the US for-profit sector represents an exemplar of where the market logic now taking hold in the UK could lead, in so far as that linking financial performance to student numbers increases the structural importance of marketing and communication functions. How this logic plays out in practice depends on many organisational and sectoral factors which I’d like to understand better than I currently do.

How do we characterise the broader change in the sector? Cynics would see it as a distraction from the core functions of the university, with increasing resources being directed to marketing exercises with a possibly uncertain payoff in terms of recruitment. What concerns me is the competitive escalation that can arise in a (relatively) undifferentiated sector where actors compete for scarce attention: how can universities be heard above the din? One way is to accelerate the investment in marketing and communications, expanding into new arenas and further investing in staffing and systems. This is something which those staff are liable applaud, a message that might have particular force when their function is on the ascendency within the university and they can speak with authority gleamed from work outside the sector.

But others would argue that any uncertainty could be overcome by instilling a “marketing culture” in which “return on investment of each activity is carefully weighed up”. This is how Communications Management, ‘the education specialists’ report on findings of a project they were involved on:

Key findings

  • Over two-thirds (69%) of UK marketing directors have seen an increased investment in marketing over the past three years
  • Branding is often still not understood within the higher education sector
  • Modern students are ‘demanding customers’ looking for a response 24/7, meaning that a shift in marketing techniques is crucial
  • Social media must be handled in the right way to avoid “pushy communications” and encroaching on student space
  • Increase in senior strategic marketing appointments in Higher Education Institutions

However survey respondents – a third of the UK’s HE marketing directors – also stated that though budgets still rarely approach those in the private sector, they consider short term funding to be less important than moving to such a “marketing culture,” in which return on investment of each activity is carefully weighed up.

http://www.communicationsmanagement.co.uk/blog/he-marketing-has-become-more-credible/

There are many things to explore here. What particularly interests me is the role of professionalisation (within the sector) and external agencies (from outside the sector) in shaping the new common-sense concerning marketing in the digital university.

I just stumbled across an interesting report, Trends in Higher Education Marketing, Recruitment, and Technology, focusing on the United States context and would welcome any suggestions of reading that focuses more on the UK.

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