Brands now provide a higher degree of on-the-job training

With Harrods now offering a sales qualification, will students base their degree choice on corporate brand rather than university?

They always say you should learn on the job. Now luxury superstore Harrods is taking that philosophy literally and launching what it claims to be the first UK retailer BA (Hons) degree course. And, unsurprisingly, it’s a qualification in sales.

But while you undoubtedly need the gift of the gab – and a very rich or stupid customer – to sell a £15 loaf of bread or a £2m football shirt, can brands really market education in this way?

Harrods is banking on its own reputation as an aspirational brand to pull off its move into the world of teaching. Harrods learning and development manager Arkin Salih tells me that the retailer’s own reputation is important for the course to succeed. He feels that the cachet of the famous store’s name and reputation makes the degree more attractive to potential students.

“Harrods is a world famous brand, an icon in the luxury retail market, and as such I think we have the experience and the credentials to teach people to sell – after all, we have been doing it for more than 160 years,” he says.

Of course, the store is not going it entirely alone. The two-year course is being run in partnership with Anglia Ruskin University and lessons will be taught by both academic lectures and the store’s own training staff.

The allure of branded education for cash-strapped students is fairly obvious. It’s pretty much the perfect deal. You study in your working time, there are no tuition fees and all you have to promise in return is to stay at your employer for the duration of the degree, plus six months afterwards. Since there aren’t many great jobs around anyway, why not?

With traditional higher education institutions lobbying to raise fees already costing tens of thousands of pounds for a three-year course, the branded degree may become a major new teaching trend in the UK

The state of the British education system makes it even more attractive. Up to 200,000 students are thought likely to miss out on university places this year due to a cap on student numbers. And with traditional higher education institutions lobbying to raise fees already costing tens of thousands of pounds for a three-year course, the branded degree may become a major new teaching trend in the UK.

Harrods is not the only brand that has spotted the marketing potential in this area. G4S, McDonald’s and Tesco are reportedly already working with universities to develop courses of their own. Many would-be students may soon be choosing their degrees based on a corporate brand, rather than an academic one.

So how could this work? Potentially, different brands could offer different academic avenues. So if you want to be qualified in shopping psychology, you might choose a Tesco degree. If you want to major in graphic design, you could go straight to Apple rather than bothering with Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. Or for a career in research, you head for Novartis.

Yet just because they are successful at retailing, it doesn’t mean that companies necessarily have the brand credibility to move further into this area. Although Salih says that Harrods’ association with customer service and sales skills makes it qualified to teach courses (with assistance from an academic institution), some believe that this is just enhanced on-the-job training.

A source from a top UK university offering multiple business courses – who is unwilling to talk openly about this subject – argues that branded degrees are no threat to traditional universities and colleges. “This type of degree has a vocational slant,” the source claims. “Our courses are far more academic and our own brand in that area is very strong.”

But with so few university places available, might not even traditional academic institutions now consider linking up with brands to offer extra courses? While it might be difficult to teach a geography degree effectively from the confines of the National Geographic shop, it could make more sense for business-focused degrees. The Higher Education Funding Council for England has invested more than £60m in universities setting up projects with workplaces; more than 30 higher education bodies are already on board.

“This is a great way for brands to develop their staff,” says my academic source. “But we are a research-intensive university, which is something else entirely. I don’t think we would consider linking up with a retailer to offer a course like this.”

While historic academic institutions might not see the value in branded education, the corporate world seems extremely keen. Harrods might be the first retailer to go the full BA (Hons) path, but many other companies already offer largely vocational foundation degrees, which can later be topped up to full degree status by more study at a university. Last year, 19,000 people opted to take a foundation degree, up 26% on the previous 12 months.

Harrods’ Salih is so excited about the potential of his sales degree, where course modules include human behaviour, shopping psychology, product knowledge and economics, he would be “completely open-minded to future training opportunities” such as extending the course to marketing qualifications, although he has no plans to do this at present.

With about 23,000 CIM members currently taking professional marketing qualifications, demand for business-focused education among the British workforce seems unlikely to drop away. As the UK government announces cuts in services and salary freezes, a workplace BA (Hons) degree could offer both employers and employees an extra edge.

Salih says that getting buy-in from the management of Harrods to enter the world of education was an easy sell when considering all the benefits to both the brand and its employees. Whether other companies can train themselves to think the same way will be a very interesting lesson to follow.

Ruth Mortimer is associate editor of Marketing Week and PPA business magazine columnist of the year

To read more of Ruth’s opinions visit her blog here

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