Investing in HE marketing

According to Justin Shaw, more value is being placed on university marketing in response to higher fees and increasing global competition

By Justin Shaw, Managing Director of Communications Management 

Big changes are afoot in UK universities. A growing student population with modern day expectations (not least because they are paying heavily for the experience), a dramatic rise in the number of institutions, and strong demand for a range of university ‘services’ all mean a shift in culture. Universities UK this month reported a 24% increase in output from our universities (now amounting to £73bn a year).

This expansion, combined with increased global competition, suggests that the level of investment in university marketing should also be following suit. In most industries such a step-change would certainly equate to a bigger frontline investment.

To find out if this is the case, we supported Dr Chris Chapleo of Bournemouth University in talking to over a third of the UK’s university marketing directors around how the latest trends in higher education have impacted on their marketing spend and activities. The research formed the context for a discussion at the annual conference of the Chartered Institute of Marketing’s Market Interest Group in Higher Education, where four seasoned HE marketing directors, with 80 years’ combined experience of setting marketing budgets, gathered to reflect on the issues.

Overall, the research showed that more than two-thirds (69%) of marketing directors reported an increase in investment in marketing over the past three years, demonstrating that more value is being placed on university marketing in response to higher fees and increasing global competition. HE institutions have started to adopt more competitive and aggressive marketing strategies to secure quality students for income and research excellence.

However, budgets still rarely approach those in the private sector and, in reality, many marketing budgets are still flat – with most marketing departments being told to expect “the same” levels of spending year in, year out (with the occasional interest in funding special, additional or one-off projects). Two of the conference panellists mentioned that their marketing budgets equated to just 0.8% of their university’s turnover.

Yet many would also say that a private sector-style marketing budget is not as important as shifting to a “marketing culture” in universities, in which the value and function of marketing is truly recognised. There was a general feeling (especially from the conference audience) that university cultures are actually quite uneducated about the role and contribution of marketing teams – with evidence that, by and large, marketers in HE aren’t involved in key issues such as product (course) development and pricing. Branding is also a major challenge for universities. Often there is still a misconception that branding is the logo and visual identity, rather than what the institution stands for and what makes students and staff proud to be part of it.

Delegates also described a perceived longstanding resistance to marketing by academia. Every year THE magazine produces its ‘knocking copy’ for marketing spend with accompanying comments from academics about marketing as “waste”. Clearly there is no point in having expansive budgets without this being accompanied by a big perceptions shift around the value of marketing activity.

Sector-wide, there are more marketing staff than a few years ago, as well as more senior strategic marketing appointments, however there is also a deficiency in specific commercial marketing skills. Those needed are from either the public or private sectors with an ability to use commercial marketing approaches; in particular those specialised in digital and online marketing, market research and analysis. Increasingly long-standing marketing staff must also be willing to approach modern day HE marketing with a fresh pair of eyes.

Despite cynicism, there’s no doubt that as global competition between universities increases and students take on more complex choices in deciding where to invest for their future, a continued evolution in traditional marketing approaches and team functions will be necessary. Standing out from the crowd, proactively demonstrating value and engaging with ‘prospects’ in the right way is essential to future success in UK higher education and effective marketing will be at the heart of this.

For a copy of the report, The Effect of Increased Tuition Fees on Higher Education Marketing in the UK, by Chris Chapleo of Bournemouth University, please visit: 

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