Against university marketing

There’s a gently scathing inditement of university marketing in today’s WonkHE newsletter. I’ve been interested in university marketing for years, without ever having written properly on the topic. I find it fascinating to see how universities choose to position themselves to (imagined) publics, as well as what this positioning says about them and the context within which they work. As WonkHE observes, what’s striking about advertising (in the UK) is how familiar it all seems, making reference to their place within an imaginary league table without any evidence that students or employers care about this:

Sector PR teams need to wean themselves off league tables and find more transparent ways to highlight their individual qualities. That’s the primary message falling out of six Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) rulings concerning different – yet somehow depressingly similar – advertisements from six universities.

In each case the institution in question had sought to position itself towards the top of a largely imaginary league table. The use of sector jargon (what is a “modern university”? or an “arts university”?) and unqualified claims (who said you were “university of the year”? why?) serves, in the eyes of the regulator, only to confuse people further.

Being slapped down for these practices isn’t just a bad look for the sector –- it’s bad marketing practice. There’s little evidence that students or employers care that you are in the top 5% of modern universities in the Greater Stroud Valley region, so why make the claims in the first place? It seems a risk not worth taking.

We need a turn-around in university marketing practice because the current trajectory could lead us to some pretty appalling places. On pg 20 of her Lower Ed, Tressie McMillan Cottom observes how marketing related spending outstrips tuition at some for-profit colleges in the United States:

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.

I assume we’re a long way from this in the UK, though there is no comparative data available to the best of my knowledge. But the reasons for growth are structural, as Andrew McGettigan makes clear in The Great University Gamble:

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.

The ‘depressing similarity’ of university advertising suggests this process is expanding in a similar way within otherwise different universities. Some of this activity reaches into areas where I can claim some expertise, such as the growth of viral videos which often create a backlash for the institution. But it strikes me the overarching process is one which is ripe for analysis, providing a productive lens through which we can investigate transformations underway within the university. For this reason, I find it hard not to welcome the ASA judgement, as well as to hope it leads to a different direction of travel in university marketing.

I’d like to keep an Instagram of university advertising in the UK: https://www.instagram.com/theacceleratedacademy/

Please get in touch if you have any pictures you’d like to contribute!

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