The most successful universities don’t sell education…

SPONSORED: They sell the dream. Here’s how they do it…

By Sam Marks is Creative Director at Squiz 

The modern prospective student faces a unique set of circumstances: soaring tuition fees, a saturated postgraduate job market and the total commoditization of education. To a 17 year old, the outlook might seem a bit bleak and so – for purveyors of education – it’s more important than ever to help potential students understand and visualise their future in a positive way, should they choose to pursue higher education.

This challenge becomes more difficult as the market becomes increasingly competitive. Student number caps have been lifted allowing universities to recruit in greater numbers. The number of 17 and 18 year olds in the UK population has reduced by 4% compared to 10 years ago. Political uncertainty with Brexit looming has put the brakes on the influx of EU students.

And so a fundamental creative challenge presents itself in the face of rising competition: how might we show prospective students a future version of themselves? How might we make this future version seem appealing yet unattainable without a degree? How might we prove that a traditional university education still offers value for money?

For the creatives, strategists, UXers and designers at Squiz, this challenge is super exciting. The challenge is flipping the student experience from being purely informative to being informative and aspirational. How might we sell the dream, rather than the nuts and bolts of the student experience? The concept of ‘selling the dream’ is nothing new, in fact most industries spend millions of marketing and advertising pounds every year doing just that.

Here are three examples:

Budweiser isn’t a hangover inducing beer, it’s a facilitator of good times. Just imagine how much fun you’ll become after a few sips.


Ikea isn’t a purveyor of fine furniture, it’s affordable furniture to fit into a lifestyle. By investing in IKEA products you’re securing your place within that lifestyle and projecting the type of person you want to be.


Armani Diamonds isn’t a man’s scent, it’s a route into a premium lifestyle that includes expensive suits and being irresistible to the opposite sex.

You get the idea.

By applying these techniques in a Higher Education context we are able to start to tell stories that sell the dream, rather than just the mechanics of what’s on offer; it’s not a university it’s a one-way ticket to higher earnings, endless job opportunities and relentless career progression. It’s a vessel through which students can imagine and achieve their future self.

Of course, exactly what that ‘dream’ end-state or future self looks like will vary between prospective students. It’s our job as consultants to fully understand the dream, in order to create stories, features and functionalities that enable students to realise it.

So how can we achieve this? Well, we at Squiz have conducted our fair share of student interviews, sent out countless surveys and run many a user testing session. And it’s fair to say we’ve learnt a thing or two. Here are three of the most interesting ways we’ve enabled students to understand what their life might be like after graduation, before they’ve even enrolled:

Search via career

Almost every university on the planet enables students to search for courses or subjects that they might be interested in studying. It’s how it’s always been. However, our creative team recently flipped this idea and produced a search tool that allowed prospective students to search for a career that might interest them and then see courses or subjects related to it. These prospective students struggled to see themselves at simply ‘a maths graduate’ or ‘a marketing graduate’ but they could see themselves as a Pilot or an English teacher, for example.

Future Mapper

This is a tool that lets prospective students plug in some preferences about courses or careers they might be interested in and then shows them alumni stories from the university that followed a similar path. This enables students to see a tangible outcome of their education rather than the just reading through module descriptions or details about contact hours.

Aspirational content

Content is still king and every university’s content strategy should be centred around selling the future self dream. Maybe it’s video content that follows alumni on their postgraduate journey. Perhaps it’s infographics that show how much above the national average that university graduates earn. It could be a virtual reality offering that lets a student experience a first day at a prestigious city firm. The possibilities are plenty.

In conclusion, it’s clear that students are no longer students: they are customers and should be treated as such. They must be served aspirational content that helps them imagine a future version of themselves and they must be sold a lifestyle that is only attainable by enrolling at the university. The hardest part is figuring out what prospective students consider to be the dream. Once you know this, it’s then possible to create compelling experiences that sell that dream. Over to you.

Sam Marks is Creative Director at Squiz and is responsible for all UX and creative Squiz Europe & North America. From initial concepts through to polished designs Sam drives the look & feel and usability of everything Squiz produces.

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