In a speech by the Prime Minister launching a review of post-18 education funding that she claims is about “more than just the money”, Theresa May wants to offer fairness to both taxpayers and students while delivering to an agenda of widening access. But, what will this mean for you as higher education marketers?
The review’s scope means that tuition fees are unlikely to be scrapped altogether, but whether they are lowered, raised or differentiated across subjects is up for debate. May alluded to the potential failings of the current system where universities charge market-driven fees based on the value of their degrees (although how value is defined is a whole debate in itself), which in actual fact results in the vast majority of institutions charging top dollar for their courses. While alluding to concerns from students and their families about high levels of graduate debt, more robust evidence underpinning why the current set-up is not okay was notably absent from May’s speech.
But, what will this mean for you as higher education marketers?
In the short-term, yet more uncertainty about the future of the perceived value of higher education. Amidst the introduction of a new sector regulator and new rankings for teaching quality, not to mention negative press coverage about vice-chancellors’ pay, a review of funding adds more disruption to a sector already challenged with proving its value.
We reached out to key marketers in the sector for their view:
“Uncertainty and mixed messages don’t help the sector or our students”, says Emma Leech, Director of Marketing and Advancement, Loughborough University. “Education changes lives and brings personal freedom and opportunity. No amount of tinkering with pricing, subjective views on “value for money” or muddled thinking about the real impact on social mobility should undermine that.”
This uncertainty in itself may be enough to put some people off applying to university. If this is the case, coupled with the reduction of the number of 18-year-olds, and drops in the numbers of mature students applying for university, marketers find themselves in an increasingly competitive environment.
It seems likely that the highest impacts of this will be felt by those groups already under-represented – mature students being one clear example – meaning that more money and time must be invested by universities into working with these groups to demonstrate the worth of a university education.
“The challenge for marketing teams will be around perception and the perceived quality of courses if fees are linked to graduate salaries”, says Kenon Mann, Head of Digital Marketing at a HE institution. “Many have commented that this choice may hinder social mobility as disadvantaged students may apply for cheaper courses which potentially will create a strange social-economic divide within the student body. I imagine that marketing teams will need to ensure that messages and campaigns do not start alienating or favouring certain students studying a particular subject and that teams need to be acutely aware of how their university is perceived.”
Should fees be lowered, one obvious question is where does the funding come from? With the introduction of increased fees in 2012 came the withdrawal of large proportions of Hefce grant funding. Universities then upped their fees to cover their costs (controversies over where that money went notwithstanding). A reduction in fee income could mean reduction in budgets, including those set aside for marketing a university and its programmes. It could also mean a reduction in provision. If this is the case, which courses go? And how does this affect a university’s remit to offer education opportunities for a broad range of people?
How can you feel positive about all this?
We’d never end things on a downer, so let’s take a look at some of the positives. University still remains the top option for many young people (as well as some older ones). And as always not all changes are felt as negatively at all institutions. So, what can you be thinking about in light of the government’s review of tuition fees?
- Ensure your offer is clear – think about what’s great about your university, and we mean, what’s great for the day to day experiences of your students, as well as what they will come out with at the end of three (or two, or four, or more) years study. Every institution has something unique to offer.
- Shout about what’s great in all your communications – advertising, conversations between staff or student ambassadors and prospective students at recruitment fairs, open days and applicant days, emails, social media – be loud and proud of your USPs. Check out Edurank to see which of your competitors are smashing this already and see where you can increase your visibility and engagement.
- Consider whether your visual identity and tone of voice truly represent your greatness – don’t be let down by creative and copy that doesn’t do your brand justice.
- If you’re uncertain what’s great, or even if you’re not but want some reassurance, speak with your students and other stakeholders about what they love about the institution. This can really help you make sure you communicate about your institution in the best way.
If you’d like to speak to any of our experts about how our house of brands, specialising in student marketing, can help with your student recruitment campaigns, get in touch.