News Analysis: Universities use their brand power

Under new financing rules, universities can now set their own 'top-up fees'. With freshers' weeks now under way, Sarah Robertson looks at the comms techniques used by universities in their bid to attract students

Universities face a plethora of comms challenges as the Government strives to ensure half of all UK citizens enter higher-education before they are 30 (the current figure is 42 per cent).

Under new funding rules, universities are able to set their own ‘top-up fees' from this academic year, increasing the competitive nature of the sector. And to ensure the fees do not act as a deterrent to students, universities are increasingly investing in marcoms campaigns, says Angie Moxham, CEO of 3 Monkeys Communications.

‘Like FMCG brands'
‘Universities are finally realising they have to act like FMCG brands in terms of [boosting admissions],' says Moxham.

But the very phrase ‘top-up fees' has led to confusion, says Chris Dry, marketing and comms manager at the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service: ‘There is a feeling that the fees and funding packages have not been properly explained.

‘For example, few realise that there is now a non-refundable maintenance grant available.'

Despite this, Dry believes the more traditional universities are reluctant to deploy modern comms techniques: ‘There is ambivalence towards marketing; many want to be product-led, not market-led. There is also a gentleman's agreement that universities don't put each other down.'

Former Durham University head of media and PA Keith Seacroft agrees: ‘Orthodox PR does not always sit comfortably with higher education. For example you can't operate on the principle that all incoming media inquiries must go through the press office, since this runs against the concept of academic independence. Besides, some academics are gifted communicators and media-savvy.'

Nonetheless, promoting the student experience and the services on offer will be crucial for universities to differentiate themselves.

PRWeek asked four university communicators to talk through their current PR priorities (below).

Hilary Layton, University of York:

‘The PR challenges of the new funding system have been around for a couple of years, and have not affected our intake. But the new system has been a PR opportunity missed.

‘It is fairer than it was before, there are more bursaries and scholarships. But people have not grasped the message - it hasn't been sold well by the Government.

‘If you have a solid reputation for academic quality you are less likely to be affected by top-up fees. But such a reputation can put off those with low-income backgrounds because they see some universities as elitist. So attracting a diverse student population is also a considerable PR challenge.

‘Using the traditional promotional tools - publications, websites, open days and talks - the University of York wants to be seen as a centre for academic excellence with a friendly face. We want to be seen as modern and dynamic despite our historical setting.'

Hilary Layton is University of York director of communications.

Jonathan Ray, University of Nottingham:

‘Given the introduction of top-up fees, we are increasingly promoting the student experience: we are having barbeques at open days and other activities to make us accessible and fun. ‘We are engaging with online and guerrilla marketing, and sending our outreach team to other regional capitals to talk to students at recruitment events.

‘Lecturers are acting as mentors to potential applicants at secondary schools, and we visit primary schools to talk about creative learning. We are also sponsoring the play The Caretaker at Nottingham Playhouse, which many schools will come and see. And we are working closely with our union to promote bursaries.

‘But I don't think top-up fees are too much of a PR challenge - and they are less of a challenge for traditional universities. We have a strong brand but we are being more customer-focused than we have been in the past.'

Jonathan Ray is University of Nottingham director of public affairs.

Patricia Murchie, University of Bedfordshire:

‘We recently rebranded when we merged with The De Montfort University's Bedfordshire campus. Previously the University of Luton, we consulted students, staff and others over our name.

‘We work very closely with local colleges, and over 50 per cent of our students are from the region. We are consequently in a privileged position because we have a good relationship with local media and can easily target potential freshers. Our only PR challenge is getting news out quickly enough. There are so many positive things happening, new facilities for this year including sport science laboratories.

‘The local press have covered the issue of top-up fees a lot, which has given us good opportunities. More and more people are choosing to go to university in their hometown because of the costs of higher education.'

Patricia Murchie is University of Bedford­shire director of comms and marketing.

Lynn Grimes, Thames Valley University:

‘We are focusing on courses where we know we are first class - the bits we consider pukka. Our message is that we have generous bursaries for all, plus a brand-new, purpose-built, state-of-the-art student accommodation block.

‘We are concentrating on our plus points rather than putting ourselves down. We are not saying "come on, we're the cheapest"; rather, our strapline is "taking you further and higher" because we provide post-14 education, GCSEs, NVQs and degrees as well as other courses. Top-up fees are not really a PR challenge for us - they will affect the traditional univers­ities more because students there will want a lot more for their money.

Traditional universities have traded on their heritage and not promoted their benefits. However, new universities are used to promoting themselves as, by the nature of being new, they need to seize market share.'

Lynn Grimes is Thames Valley University head of marketing and comms.

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