Universities enrol for a marketing masterclass

  • To find out more about brands as education providers, click here
  • Get the inside view from our Q&A with Exeter University’s marketing and communications director, here


New opportunities are opening up for marketers as public, private and brand-backed vocational higher education providers call on their skills to help them generate additional income.

The introduction of university education fees of up to £9000 a year is forcing higher education marketers to take cues from the corporate world and convince prospective students that their institution’s brand is a quality choice offering value for money.

The other challenge facing these marketers is that the sector is becoming more crowded. Private universities are emerging with enhanced marketing and recruitment strategies and corporate brands are taking matters into their own hands by subsidising the cost of qualifications taken by their employees.

The need to emphasise value for money and compete with new rivals means education is one area where the importance of marketing is growing and new roles are being created to serve the business needs of the sector.

The University of Exeter is one of a growing list of institutions advertising for newly created marketing roles. It has invested £250,000 in the creation of six posts to add to its existing marketing team of 10, including its first head of marketing.

This post holder will report to the university’s marketing and communications director, Stuart Franklin (see Q&A). Franklin says the university’s investment in marketing will allow it to roll out a more aggressive branding, market research, customer relationship management and income generation strategy.

“This new role is about having a much more considered and professional approach to how we develop academic programmes. We wanted to assess the performance of our programme portfolio and put more rigour into how we bring new programmes to market,” he explains.

“It is down to the fact that universities like Exeter will get very little public funding in the future and will be looking more to the consumer.”

Traditional universities face competition for students
Traditional universities face competition for students

Franklin says the current environment will change the relationship between universities and their students. He notes: “Students will see themselves more as consumers than they have in the past.”

Similarly, De Montfort University in Leicester is adding to its marketing team with a new role, focusing on new technologies and media.

Director of external relations Kerry Law claims the addition is part of an overall marketing strategy review. “With all the changes occurring in higher education, we thought it was necessary to take a step back and review everything we did,” she says.

De Montfort’s marketing function will move from a fragmented structure focused on individual faculties and departments to a more centralised system with, says Law, more collaboration and an emphasis on “product knowledge”.

Alongside the production of prospectuses and starter packs, Law says social media can widen a university’s impact and build relationships with students – but marketers must be careful to avoid overstepping boundaries. She warns: “You have to use social media correctly so students don’t feel it’s inappropriate to be interacting with a university on Facebook.

“You have to look at how social media benefits the student experience. That might mean doing things like putting students in touch with each other once they’ve accepted the offer of a place from us.”

As universities increasingly approach marketing in a more business-focused fashion, Law acknowledges that finding and pushing a unique selling point for each university will be tricky. Each one needs to promote the same basic idea that it will offer the best education available.

“At first glance, a lot of universities look very similar. If students are paying more, universities need to show how they are adding value,” says Law.

De Montfort, for example, will be using the Higher Education Academy’s National Teaching Fellow accreditation for individual academics as a selling point. It will promote the number of staff who have this endorsement.


Supporting students’ efforts to gain employment at the end of their degree is also something De Montfort will escalate, says Law, with the introduction of more internship schemes at local companies.

Indeed, employability will become a more important factor for students selecting a university. Just 62% of 2010 graduates were in work six months after completing their degrees, with a further 7% combining work and further study, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

As such, employability is a vital selling point for higher education bodies to emphasise in their communications. Consumers also expect universities to focus on this issue, with 60% of people saying graduate employability should be a top selection factor, according to a YouGov survey of more than 2000 people conducted with marketing consultancy Strategic Fusion in April.

However, Newcastle University Business School head of communications Laura Foster claims employability is only part of the equation. She says that rather than focusing on employability alone, she couples her marketing of the university with promoting the north-east region as a place to live and work beyond a degree. Pitching the institution’s location as a life destination can make its communications seem more meaningful to consumers.

“It doesn’t necessarily affect the bottom line but we have to consider this when we are engaging with students,” Foster explains. “We have relationships with potential employers in the region and we offer placements and internships. We’re introducing students to what the area has to offer.”

Foster adds that UK universities are also fighting against a burgeoning global education market. As higher education institutions in India, China and South East Asia build their reputations, she says the market for international students is becoming tougher as more overseas applicants choose to study in their home countries.

“Universities are just catching up with their marketing, recognising that you have to take a different campaign approach and invest in market research,” she admits. “We have started to take this very seriously, to look at what works and what people want in different regions.”


Meanwhile, private universities – not funded by public money – are hoping to offer potential students something different from more traditional educational institutions. Both London-based BPP and the University of Buckingham offer two-year intensive study degrees, which once may have only appealed to a niche market but are now being promoted as both a cost saving and a quicker path to a career.

Buckingham University marketing director Alistair Alcock claims the tables have now shifted in favour of the two-year degree model. Although a single year may cost £11,250 from September 2012 in Buckingham’s case, condensing a three-year degree down to just two does result in a lower bill at the end.

“Our position has changed quite dramatically overnight. We have gone from being one of the most expensive providers to one of the cheapest,” says Alcock. He argues that it isn’t about raising awareness of Buckingham’s two-year model in itself, but more about addressing preconceptions that it is an expensive place to study.

“If anyone knows one thing about our university, they know about our two-year degree,” he says. “The perception that may take a bit more time to break down is that although we’re a private university, we’re not expensive.”

Alcock claims that when appraising private universities, many people now think of the New College of the Humanities (NCH) in London. Set up this summer by Professor Anthony Grayling, it will feature famous academics including biologist Richard Dawkins and cost about £18,000 a year.

“People have this conception that what we offer must have a similar cost to the NCH. The fact that it does not is one of our principle marketing messages,” says Alcock.

Buckingham aims instead to take on some traditional university marketing tactics to promote its degrees. It is increasing its marketing spend in the local area and liaising with schools to tap into the anticipated trend of more students choosing to study locally to save money.

BPP University College was granted the power to award degrees last July and is also seeking new growth opportunities in the changing education market. Chief executive Carl Lygo revealed in June that he has aggressive expansion plans, including managing the business side of partner universities where BPP already jointly runs business, law and finance qualifications.


Like Buckingham, BPP does not just position its two-year model around cost savings. Its differentiation tactic is to target students who are looking for an environment that feels closer to a workplace than a mass-market academic campus experience.

Lygo says BPP will begin to deliver some assertive marketing campaigns for its target audience. He explains: “We’ve had a complete revolution in our marketing over the past 12 months. We’ve added some high-powered recruits to our marketing team.”

He adds that the new roles are addressing novel areas for BPP, such as reaching out more to schools, colleges and other universities, along with social media and PR.

“Previous BPP chief executives didn’t want to become involved in a national dialogue about education,” Lygo confides. “But since we gained degree-awarding powers and university college status, we’ve had a much bigger role to play and a more important message to send, given the rising costs of undergraduate fees and our two-year degree model.”

Lygo says BPP has yet to declare its 2012 fees. “We are looking at options to reduce the debt students will incur and we have some interesting ideas that we aren’t ready to share just yet,” he says. “Our mission statement is to challenge the educational status quo, so we are looking to do something a bit more radical.”

This need for private universities to keep innovating begs the question of whether public universities will copy the two-year degree model. But Buckingham’s Alcock is confident that the sector won’t see a spate of similar offerings from more traditional universities. “Our two-year courses are based on being taught four terms a year with a short break,” he says. “We were set up this way, but trying to retro-fit this structure into existing institutions would be harder.”

Nevertheless, BPP’s Lygo claims alternative approaches to the traditional three-year, campus-based experience will improve education standards in the UK. He sees moving away from what he calls the “Club Sol experience that an 18-year-old goes to for three or four years” as being positive for students.

“New models will continue to develop whether that’s taking a degree from a vocational education provider or at Professor Grayling’s New College of Humanities,” he predicts. “These are experimental and we welcome innovation in the sector. We’ve been competing with universities for the past 35 years and that has driven up standards, as other institutions have had to cater more for the client’s needs in response. By unleashing the private sector, there will be more alternative routes to education.”

’If students are paying more, universities need to show how they are adding value’ Kerry Law, De Montford University

One such route is the corporate degree, where brands partner with higher education providers to offer their own accredited qualifications. In January, professional services firm KPMG announced its new school-leavers’ programme in partnership with Exeter, Birmingham and Durham universities (see Q&A).

The qualification will take six years to complete, with students dividing their time between studying and working for KPMG. Rival firm PwC offers a placement partnership with Newcastle University Business School, while the likes of Vodafone, McDonald’s and even Harrods offer qualifications (see Brands as Education Providers).

Be it public or private, a common challenge across all higher education providers will be to better target their marketing activities to generate income. Buckingham’s Alcock says electronic and social media could help the university keep in touch with former students. However, he points out that British alumni are less likely to donate to their former university compared with those in the US, where the practice is more common.

As the recession means former students may have even less money available to donate to universities than a few years ago, BPP is asking them to offer their time instead. Lygo says that high-profile professionals mentoring students or allowing them to shadow their work is great marketing ammunition.

“We can exploit past student connections not in the traditional way of asking alumni for financial help but by more involvement of our graduates in the educational provision of current students,” Lygo says. “Some of our former students are in high-profile positions. The chief secretary to the treasury is a BPP graduate, as is the new chief executive of Sunderland Football Club.

“People get sick of having to reach into their own pockets all the time and we don’t have the same culture as America where there are tax incentives for giving back to your university,” he adds. “Asking people to be generous with their time is more realistic.”

As Buckingham’s Alcock observes, increasing competition in the university sector might be a certainty but it is not known which promotional tactics will be of most interest to students. As more traditional and new providers invest in pushing their brands for the first time, it could well be marketers that have most to learn on campus.




Stuart Franklin
Marketing and communications director, Exeter University

Marketing Week (MW): Exeter University is pouring £250,000 into its marketing. What do you aim to achieve?

Stuart Franklin (SF): We have a small in-house market research function along with marketing and communications officers that produce recruitment publicity and web copy. We also have college marketing managers.

The university has grown over the last eight years, so it’s about adding the capacity to develop things like market research and employing additional marketing communications officers to give the college managers the time to act more strategically. Demands have been growing within the university for more effective marketing.

MW: You have advertised specifically for a new head of marketing. What will the post holder be required to deliver?

SF: The new head of marketing role is about a much more considered approach to how we develop academic programmes and drive value from them. We want to look at our programme portfolio so we can come up with a way of assessing performance, look at how we bring new programmes to market and put more rigour into any process than we currently have.

This person needs to be aware of what academic programmes cost to teach, whether it is a declining or growing market, and what competitors are doing. They will help develop programmes that are attractive to the market and manage them in a more organised and overt way than we have in the past.

MW: How does your approach to marketing compare with traditional brand building strategies in sectors such as FMCG or retail?

SF: We are aware of our brand and our place in the market. We’ve done a lot of research over the last couple of years to hone that position and to look at how our brand compares with other universities in terms of its value.

But one of the difficulties is differentiation. It’s not like an FMCG company where you pick a single statement to base your communications around. A university encompasses areas such as teaching, research, industry engagement and lots of other things.

You can, however, look at a range of distinct attributes. For example, Exeter scores highly in the National Students Survey [where final-year undergraduates are polled for their views] and is seen as a heavy hitter in research. We have a fantastic location in Devon. But thinking in a more business-like way will be crucial in the future.

MW: Do you think universities will end up viewing students as ’customers’?

SF: It’s not a straight commercial relationship, like selling a car or iPod. The relationship with the student is a lot more complex because it requires something from them – proof that they are [academically] good enough. But with fees going up, students will become more demanding in terms of what they get for their money, so it’s up to universities to make sure they are satisfying that, whether that’s through facilities, teaching hours or even staff-to-student ratios.

MW: Does your new marketing strategy involve encouraging alumni philanthropy?

SF: In the 1980s, there was a realisation that universities had to raise more money from non-government sources and philanthropy was an important part of that. It’s only in the last 10 years, though, that it has been significantly invested in.

MW: Do you see new private university business models as a threat to traditional educational institutions?

SF: It’s not something we’re afraid of, as we think it would be hard for a private sector provider to come in and replicate what we have for a lower cost. We also have the advantage of being able to offer a better service because we are willing to enter into partnerships with other providers.

There is a marketing conundrum here in that you want to be seen as cutting edge but you also want to be seen as an organisation with history – new entrants to the market won’t have that kind of history to support their brand.

MW: Corporate brands are beginning to provide their own education offerings. Is this a positive shift in the sector?

SF: Brand partnerships have to add value. We have a One Planet MBA, which is done in partnership with the World Wildlife fund. We also provide a degree in partnership with the professional services firm KPMG. I can see more of these partnerships emerging because we have a lot of industry links. We are also keen to talk to businesses about what sort of degrees they see as most useful.

This should be taken into account when designing a degree course. From a marketing point of view, you get extra branding power if you’re presenting a degree programme with an organisation that also has a powerful brand. A number of areas of the market are already quite saturated in terms of programmes, so any point of differentiation is very important.

Harrods: Offers an honours degree in sales with Anglia Ruskin University
Harrods: Offers an honours degree in sales with Anglia Ruskin University

Brands as Education Providers

Brands have been moving into the higher education sector for some time. Department store Harrods now offers an honours degree in sales with Anglia Ruskin University, while restaurant chain McDonald’s offers foundation degrees for its staff in management positions.

It appears that students are open to such options, with 78% believing more lower

cost alternatives to full-time university courses should be on offer, according to a YouGov survey conducted with discount service Studentbeans. And 91% think more employers should provide vocational training for school leavers.

Professional services firm KPMG is also stepping up to the plate. In January, the business announced it was to run a school-leavers’ programme in conjunction with Exeter, Durham and Birmingham universities. KPMG has agreed to pay those accepted onto the programme a £20,000 starting salary, as well as all tuition and university accommodation costs, making it an attractive proposition for young people who are interested in entering the sector.

KPMG anticipates the programme, which combines work and study over six years, will gradually become the main source of its trainee intake. Head of audit Oliver Tant explains this aims to increase the diversity of the profession’s intake because it does not require students to fund their own studies. He says that it hopes to help students graduate with both a “first-class qualification and a positive bank balance”.

Other businesses are exploring different routes to help students with their educations. Market research firm YouGov recently announced its Start Up Summer collaboration with London-based University College and Imperial College.

Those accepted onto the free summer school will be grouped into teams and given £2,000 to develop a project that will be considered for a cash prize in a Dragons’ Den-style pitching process. High-profile names such as Lastminute.com founder Martha Lane Fox are on board to teach masterclasses.

YouGov business coordinator Hannah Perry says growing awareness of the YouGov brand is a clear aim, along with showing what market research can offer small businesses. She says the company plans to roll out the scheme to more London universities next summer because it is a value-added product for them.

“Our role is not just for funding, it goes a lot further than that,” she says. “We have been able to draw in big names to run masterclasses – the role of the mentors and entrepreneurs involved is core. We also ease the workload of universities by taking on all the planning work. Universities can see this programme as a way to bring what they teach to life.”

De Montfort University external relations director Kerry Law says her higher education provider is also investigating brand partnerships that benefit the university’s profile and reputation. “I believe that these kinds of partnerships are going to become more common,” she predicts. “Collaborations with industries can only be a good thing for the students that take part.”

While initiatives such as KPMG’s offer cost savings to both the university and the student, Law says that money is not be the main priority for De Montfort to consider any brand partnership. She says: “It comes down to classic marketing needs. Looking at adding value and a distinct offer against competitors would be our approach to partnerships.”



    Leave a comment