Opinion: News Analysis - Universities challenged by fresh PR pressures - The changing face of higher education has created multiple challenges for the PROs involved

The queues outside the administration blocks of Britain's higher education establishments are subsiding as freshers' week ends and the first term of the new academic year begins.

The queues outside the administration blocks of Britain's higher education establishments are subsiding as freshers' week ends and the first term of the new academic year begins.

The numbers of students taking up places at a given university reflects heavily on the performance of each institution's PR department. External communications - a catch-all incorporating marketing, development and PR duties - is now deemed central to the success of HE establishments operating in a multi-billion pound, highly competitive, global industry.

In Britain, the passing of the Further and Higher Education Act in 1992 has seen the number of universities double from 60 to 120. In England and Wales, one in three school leavers enters HE. In Scotland, this figure is one in two. Tens of thousands of international students also seek a place to their liking within the UK HE system. The choice is vast, and competition for students - and their money - has never been so intense.

'No longer do a few older, elite centres have the pick of the crop. Students today consider HE as a resource which they can access by right - and many are paying for their own higher education, and thus demand a say in what, how and where they study,' says the University of Lincolnshire and Humberside press and media relations manager Jez Ashberry.

'We have to be on the ball when it comes to promoting ourselves as a university. We have our work cut out to convince the public the new universities are credible and have a lot to offer,' he adds.

Cut-backs in government funding began in the mid-1980s and continue today, forcing HE establishments to self-fund as much as 65 per cent of their budget.

Attracting rich, overseas students is big business. It is known within HE external communications circles as the export trade, and is a similar discipline to any other export industry, reflecting the need for HE PROs to operate across several disciplines.

'PROs entering the industry today have what I call a new professionalism,' says Ray Footman, Edinburgh University director of communications.

'They are entering the industry with professional qualifications not heard of 20 years ago, and are conscious of the diverse income-base modern universities access,' he says.

'And they understand the importance of vertical integration of the establishment's key messages,' he adds.

Many university PROs together with marketing departments devise strategic campaigns to attract funds.

The conference trade and specialist courses, such as MBAs offered at purpose-built centres on campus, can be lucrative businesses if the message is conveyed successfully.

Other key HE PR functions include corporate events management, alumni relations, corporate publications - as well as traditional media relations.

'Universities are major employers in their communities and are in partnership with regional businesses. They need maximum exposure of their efforts by their PROs,' says Gillian Eulund, Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals' press and public relations manager.

Universities face increasing public scrutiny through league tables and publicly-available assessment of their achievements, such as the Higher Education Funding Council's Performance Indicators. The on-going debate about the value of the UK's HE system is forever making headlines.

Accountability is an area where HE PROs play an important role, says Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) deputy CEO Anthony McClaran.

'The culture of research and teaching quality assessments, means universities have been opened up and become more accountable. The PR function has played an important role in this, and will continue to mediate those messages to the variety of 'intrusive' stake-holders, from the government to the local community,' he says.

The Higher Education External Relations Association (HERA) represents external communications personnel operating at the UK's HE establishment, and has over 500 members.

'The onus is on HE PROs to compete with the global market, and offer protection from competition posed by multinational companies such as BP, Unilever and Microsoft, which are increasingly setting up their own training establishments,' says Dr Alisdaire Lockhart, HERA chair and Bristol University development director.

PROs must be prepared to get their message across to a larger audience, he says. 'We no longer have a captive audience such as we did 20 years ago, domestically or internationally.'

Peter Dunn, Warwick University director of communications, says PROs will also have to focus on the challenges posed by e-academia.

'The internet is going to increase competition. It will be possible for universities to offer courses on-line and UK PROs will have to engage this by providing competitive strategies for e-services,' he says.

McClaran believes the challenge ahead for PROs lies in the Government's pledge to engage 50 per cent of school leavers in HE. With no evidence of unmet demand at HE establishments, new markets will have to be stimulated to reach the 50 per cent participation rate the Government has planned, he says.

Those new markets will be among the disadvantaged - those who would have previously never considered going to university.

'What's going to be the PR strategy to reach that kind of audience?' he asks.

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