A set of tricky marketing challenges are being faced by UK universities in the wake of fees rising. They’re plagued by a widespread misconception that they now have more money when, in reality, almost every university in the country will be experiencing serious budget cuts and staff losses. The pressure to hit target student numbers is higher than ever.
This morning I read about a recent rise in student complaints. Across the board, students are behaving more like consumers; they want nothing but the best for their £9,000 a year.
Some of the complaints levelled at universities were about ‘misrepresented’ course facts. I’ve always felt that integrity is essential in communications, no matter what the industry or sector. Marketing for me is not about popping on the rose-tinted specs and exaggerating the positives. For me it is about identifying your unique qualities and then building trust. Don’t promise the earth; shape expectations.
In HE marketing, it is all too easy to pick out a statistic that suggests high levels of student satisfaction in one area. But in reality, if that stat is used in a misleading way, you’re going to damage your relationship with your students as well as your reputation. And then you can forget about calling on your alumni to help you out in future. They won’t want to know.
Your law department may not be in the top ten in the country, but your students doing a compulsory work placement each year and getting involved in an alumni mentoring programme will give them a great start in their career. Now that is something to shout about. And it shouts louder than a vague stat about where you place for student satisfaction in your region. We can’t all be top of the league, but we can put on a fantastic show for our fans, making them proud to be with us.
But, of course, the responsibility for addressing this challenge does not only lie with the marketing team. If HE is going to be treated like a business by its stakeholders then it needs to shape up. Someone who truly cares about their business will be keen to listen to feedback and act on it – and quickly! Feedback can be instant and very, very public thanks to social media. But it can take an age to get changes made in a university. Having something reviewed by multiple committees and addressed “in time for next year” is not good enough. Make improvements to help the people that have raised the issue in the first place. If you want to recruit, show you’ve listened and learned and you’re always striving to meet ‘customer’ needs.
So rather than having disgruntled graduates on your hands with the power of social media at their fingertips, give your fans something to cheer about and then they’ll be with you for life.