“Advertising and branding matter more than ever” announced the leader article in a recent issue of the Times Higher Education (7 February 2013).
The article described how:
This week we report on a 22 per cent rise in the sums spent by universities on direct marketing to students in 2011-12, with many planning to increase this further.
and went on to draw comparisons between the changing funding environment in the UK’s higher education sector and the US higher education marketplace:
According to a recent estimate reported by Reuters, the for-profit University of Phoenix, whose owner Apollo Group also controls BPP University College in the UK, was at one point spending nearly $400,000 (£254,000) a day on online adverts targeted at students.
In the UK:
There is little doubt that as far as universities in England are concerned, marketing to and competition for students are now far more pressing concerns than they once were. … The vice-chancellor of one Russell Group university confided that his institution had simply not anticipated the rapid impact of the government’s reforms, and had almost expected “business as usual” – a mistake he would not be making again.
In some quarters, some comments would be regarded with misgivings, since it would appear that scarce resources are being diverted from provision of front-line services. However I myself feel that marketing is important. In the context of research, for example we are seeing how social media services can enable researchers themselves to being their research papers to the attention of their peers, and engage in discussions about the ideas provided in the papers. Melissa Terras’s post on The verdict: is blogging or tweeting about research papers worth it? provided concrete advice for researchers based on her experiences:
If you want people to find and read your research, build up a digital presence in your discipline, and use it to promote your work when you have something interesting to share.
But although social media services enable researchers to promote their work with an authentic voice and engage in open discussions with their peers and other interested parties, there are dangers that traditional marketing departments who have a product (the institution) to promote will misuse social media services, in which there may be expectations of authenticity, openness, transparency, engagement and speed of response which may not be the case with traditional marketing channels.
In addition to such concerns I think we should be worried that the financial pressures on the sector will lead to a loss of openness and transparency and the sharing of practices which has characterised working in a public sector environment in which discussions of best practices for developing innovative approaches to teaching and learning and research have helped to develop better understanding and inform the deployment of new practices.
Innovation is defined in Wikipedia as “the development of new values through solutions that meet new needs, inarticulate needs, or old customer and market needs in value adding new ways“. As part of our work with the JISC Observatory we have sought to identify ‘weak signals’ which can help to identify early indications of developments which can be beneficial to the sector. In occurs to me, however, that there is also a need to identify signals which may suggest developments which may meet meet needs which we may question the value of. Is the need for institutions to give a positive portrayal of their activities to be welcomed, if this means that activities which could be improved cease to be discussed? Are we seeing any ‘anti-patterns’ in which marketing activities are hindering approaches to openness?