Academia is sleepy no longer. The success of Shandwick and
advertising agency McCann-Erickson in landing the first ever branding
initiative, through the British Council, to promote UK further and
higher education abroad (PR Week, 30 April) is just one of the many ways
in which universities are now selling themselves.
The days when a university education was the experience of a privileged
few are long gone. Back in the 1960s, only about five to seven per cent
of school leavers went on to study for degrees. Today the figure is more
like 35 per cent.
The ending of the distinction between polytechnics and universities
earlier this decade has increased the level of competition between
educational institutions, as each fights to fill its courses with
Each university wants to attract the best because the the influence of
ranking league tables - such as those published by the Times and a new
set of ’performance indicators’ to be introduced by the Higher Education
Funding Council later this year - means their success rates are under
’We are now very seriously in the business of selling recruitment,’ says
Middlesex University director of communications Marie Jackson.
Jackson herself, having moved to this post from the British Library, is
part of a discernible trend which has seen PR professionals moving from
other industries to take jobs at universities in recent years.
’In the last few years more people have been coming into university PR
from the outside than was the case before. There is a recognition by
some universities that they need PR professionals,’ says Christine
Hodgson, chairman of the Higher Education External Relations
Association, which was formed in 1992.
It was in the late 1960s that the universities began to consider PR as
student riots and campus protests brought an uncomfortable media
spotlight to bear on what had previously been a cloistered world. Many
student agitators, it became clear, were adept at securing publicity for
themselves and the causes they espoused.
Today it is the market economy rather than revolutionary socialism
doctrines that requires universities to be proficient at PR. The
introduction of the pounds 1,000 tuition fee means students are behaving
more like consumers when choosing their courses. And, like any consumer,
they look for specific benefits of the service. This has profound
’Universities are operating in a new landscape of expectation,’ agrees
University of Westminster director of marketing and development Carol
Homden. ’They are particularly concerned with brand differentiation -
what does a particular university stand for?’
The London Business School has tough competition when it comes to brand
differentiation. It has to compete with the likes of INSEAD in France
and Harvard in the US, for MBA candidates from blue chip employers. LBS
communications director Helen Ross says her main task is corporate
reputation and building the brand. Her challenge is to attract an
audience already highly aware of brand and reputation. ’We have to
present ourselves in a business-like way to the leaders of the future.
We can’t afford to be sloppy or unprofessiona.’
Along with brand differentiation come other processes typical of
organisations which market themselves. Whereas in the past universities
might run courses simply because they had the expertise available or the
content appealed to its dons, the aim is now to meet demand or plug a
gap in the market.
An example of this, says Homden, is Westminster’s launch of an MBA in
tourism because it considers the industry to be ’under educated in
Another factor is the pressure is on to boost income from non-Government
sources - this means finding commercial partners. Tom Collins, who left
his editorship of the Irish Times to become the University of Belfast’s
first communications director earlier this year, says the situation is
forcing universities to ’wise up’ to the needs of the commercial
Collins points to scientific research which, at his university alone,
has led to the spin off of 20 companies which between them have created
350 jobs. ’It’s created a bridge between academics and the business
world and there’s much greater awareness in the academic sector about
business operations,’ he says.
But promoting a university is by no means easy. ’Universities are
possibly unique to the extent that they are at one and the same time
internationally-orientated, nationally-orientated, regionally-orientated
They have all these faces, each of which has to be maintained to keep
the concept of a university,’ says Barry Jackson, corporate affairs
director of the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, the
unified voice of universities in dealings with Government.
Arguably the most fascinating dimension to university communications at
present concerns those located in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland,
which are having to deal with the impact of devolution.
’Devolution is certainly on the agenda of higher education institutions
and their PR work - in terms of making sure information flows both ways
and building relationships with those who will be actively determining
the funding and policy flow,’ says Edinburgh University director of
communications and public affairs Ray Footman.
Universities are selling themselves as never before: to Government, to
industry and to future students. Maybe ten years down the line, one of
them will offer a course in higher education marketing.