News Analysis: The modern university challenge

As Cambridge ushers in a new comms chief, Donna Werbner analyses the tactics of universities to build up their reputations for learning and research in an increasingly competitive and commercial market.

Few institutions in the world have a stronger reputation for academic excellence and prestige than the University of Cambridge. But the advent of top-up fees means even Cambridge cannot rely on its reputation to ensure it receives enough funding to compete in today's market. With a £10m deficit, the university is looking to drive its income by stepping up its profile as 'a leading international university that delivers great value teaching'.

Last week, it appointed former Regus Group comms director Stephen Jolly to be its first director of external affairs and comms. Jolly says he will use his 'global commercial expertise' to keep the university 'at the forefront of global competitive education'.

'The introduction of top-up fees has turned the university system into a marketplace where students are powerful consumers,' says Weber Shandwick director of corporate and public affairs D-J Collins, formerly head of news at the Department for Education and Skills. 'Students nowadays perceive university education as a financial investment, which means there is more responsibility on universities to communicate why students should make that investment.'

Students equal funding

A university that attracts more students will receive more fees and funding. If they fail to attract enough students, they will fail to get funding to cover basic operating costs and risk department closures. 'Gone are the days when government would prop up a failing university,' says Collins.

Competition for students is fierce, with target audiences ranging from the students themselves to 'influencers' such as their parents, teachers and careers advisers.

And some students are more valuable than others. The introduction of top-up fees will require every university receiving the extra cash to enter into an 'access' agreement with the Government. This forces the universities to widen participation from state school and lowerincome pupils through bursaries and sponsorships, or suffer financial penalties. 'There is a lot of competition for bright, less well-off students from families where no one has gone to university before,' says Communications Management director of education practice Justin Shaw, who handles PR for the 1994 Group of Universities, a lobby group of research-based universities. Some universities are even offering laptops as incentives, he adds, with free travel passes and bikes also up for grabs.

To encourage students from lowerincome backgrounds to apply, Hertfordshire University emphasises the 'employability' of graduates in its communications. 'We stress that graduates who have a good job have the ability to pay (the top-up fees) and that education can change your life,' says head of public affairs and PR Angela Martyn.

Youth media, regional papers, ethnic press, women's weekly titles and tabloids are all crucial for universities to boost their profile. But 'access' students are not the only target for universities attempting to drive up their income from tuition fees. When it comes to generating income, few revenue streams are more lucrative than the overseas student market.

'Universities can charge a market rate for fees to overseas students,' says Warwick University director of comms Ian Rowley. Garnering a strong academic reputation abroad - particularly in China and India - is a PR priority for most, particularly Warwick. In 2003, Rowley set up Research TV, which feeds VNRs about cutting-edge university research into the APTN news network for broadcast around the world.

Achieving a reputation at home for top-class research is equally important. Universities are allocated public funding via the research assessment exercise, conducted by academics working for the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE). This operates a star rating system for individual departments. Although the assessment is supposed to be based purely on academic achievement, Collins and Shaw both claim PR and public affairs can influence decisions.

Targeting the private sector

'Networking with government ministers can have an impact,' says Shaw, while Collins argues it is important to target the specialist higher education press. Both believe that HEFCE academics will award a higher rating if they have approached the exercise knowing a particular department has an established reputation in the public sector for excellent research.

As well as pushing the university up the league tables and providing positive news stories at important moments during the student recruitment cycle, a strong reputation for research or teaching can generate vital income from the private sector. Coventry University, for example, recently hired Communications Management to raise its profile as a centre for higher education business partnerships and innovation support. It offers businesses expertise and advice from university academics in its strongest fields, such as automotive engineering or health, in a bid to bring in extra revenue.

'Playing on a set of niche areas where a university has particular expertise will increase funding from government and business. That will attract the best students in the market, which will build the reputation of the university, which will in turn increase funding,' explains Collins.

A vital way to kick-start that cycle is to attract - or create - 'star academics' such as professors Stephen Hawking and David Starkey, says Collins. Martyn agrees: 'A celebrity academic can make academic issues accessible to Joe Public.'

For Shaw, this is the largest potential growth area for universities. 'Very little work is done by universities on their employer branding,' he argues. 'Yet the more quality lecturers and famous academics a university recruits, the more attractive it is to businesses and the more funding it will receive from government.' TARGETS FOR BUILDING A UNIVERSITY'S REPUTATION AND ATTRACTING FUNDING

- Public sector: The Higher Education Funding Council for England; The Department for Education and Skills; higher education media; public sector press; research journals; broadsheets

- Private sector: Entrepreneurs and SMEs ; large corporations requiring specialist advice; graduate employers; alumni; business press; regional media

- Students (fees): Low-income families; overseas students; secondary schools ; youth media; tabloids; women's weeklies; ethnic press; international/foreign media.

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