ANALYSIS: Brand Building - Universities exploit the advantages of branding/Competition among higher education institutions has never been so fierce, leading many of them to turn to PR in a bid to attract students and commercial funding

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.

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

talented students.



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

scrutiny.



’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

implications.



’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

management’ terms.



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

world.



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

and locally-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.



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