In a recent article (“Brand over-reach: Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’ bottle shapes”), Doug Kessler discusses the way brands can over-reach – overstepping an ‘invisible line’ and suffering reputationally and financially as a result.
The experiences of the brands highlighted by Kessler (Dove, United Airlines, Barclays, Pepsi) should serve as a warning for those of us working in higher education too.
Certainly, our context seems ripe for a similar backlash. After all, we know that, more than ever before, students are thinking of themselves as consumers.
I often think back to a first-year student who, on being told that she was awarded a non-repayable hardship grant of £1,000 by the university, snapped “It’s not enough! If you don’t give me more, I’ll leave university and you’ll lose my tuition fees!” Even dropping out has become something with which a student can threaten their institution.
Now Minister for Universities, Jo Johnson, has announced he wants to go further in strengthening the contracts that students have with their universities – a move much more likely to embolden student complaints than to help universities take action when students are failing to uphold their side of the bargain.
For Kessler, the philosophy encapsulated in Simon Sinek’s TED talk – ‘No one buys what you do, they buy why you do it’…the approach that ‘made Nike Nike and Apple Apple’ – just isn’t doing the job any longer.
This feels about right. We are much savvier as consumers now; more aware of when products, people, politics are being spun excessively in our direction. So much of our Facebook feeds today are made up of satirical memes ridiculing marketing campaigns which try to manage our choices but which only succeed in patronising us with an empty pitch about values or style.
We are more prepared than ever to shout about it when we see the emperor’s privates on parade.
What’s more, we no longer need to stop at shouting about it; we can film the parade on our phones and upload the evidence immediately to YouTube.
All of this rings as true inside our universities as it does for major corporate brands. When it comes to student recruitment, the soft soap of sales talk doesn’t work like it used to.
Applicants and students today are less likely than their predecessors to be swayed by grand marketing claims about our institutional values, the student experience, or even our league table results. Instead, they want to know, in practical terms, what the course looks like, how it is assessed, what funding they might be eligible for, and what support they will be able to access.
In my experience of running university support services over the past ten years, we have certainly faced increasingly detailed questions at open days.
– ‘What is the waiting time for the counselling service and does it vary throughout the year?’
– ‘[University X] has said they will fund a personal education assistant for me, due to my disability…will you do the same?’
– ‘Is the alumni fee discount available to part-time learners who opt to study as a distance learner on the blended version of [Masters course Y]?’
As a result, year-on-year, we add more specialist staff to the rota for open days to provide applicants with the answers, where they are able.
Higher education might not operate like a real market, and our advertising might not as inescapable as that of the corporate players. Still, this may not stop the experience of Dove, with its multi-shaped bottles and tweet-fuelled and blog-backed backlash, one day befalling a university.
Perhaps the cracks are there to be seen already.
We already see universities being challenged over marketing claims that they are in the "top 1%" of the world's universities.
We already feel the presence of new global media, such as The Tab, poised to have a pop.
Even within the mainstream media, we are already aware we operate in a hostile environment. When The Times is happy to make a front page story out of what THE’s Jack Grove calls the “pretty standard fare” of dodgy overseas businessmen selling bogus degrees, perhaps it is only a matter of time before there’s a story with enough traction to drag down the reputation of an entire university.
So what can we do to avoid becoming the university that shows others ‘how not to do it’ – the business ethics case study of tomorrow?
Perhaps all we can do is try to manage and meet students’ expectations as best we can.
Working, somewhat against the tide, to manage expectations, we can encourage students and applicants to take as constructive a view of their funding arrangements as possible; help them to see their student loans as graduate contributions for a life-transforming experience, rather than as money in their pockets which might have been better spent on a car or house deposit.
We can more confidently and transparently explain to students the real costs and value of university services and facilities. We can work to counter the kind of crude maths epitomised by Lord Adonis' tweet of last week, in which a "disgruntled student" was quoted as calculating, "I have 141 teaching hrs this coming year. At £9,250 for year, I'm paying over £65 an hour. Wow."
We can help students to understand the costs and value of professional support services, the university estate, library facilities and study spaces, digital resources, widening participation activity, and the rest of what universities provide and require to run.
Before applicants sign their contracts, we can more carefully explain the kind of academic, pastoral and social experience that students are signing up to, and what they are not.
Once we have done what we can to manage these expectations, we must then try to meet those expectations that students are left with.
We need to enhance the quality of courses, minimise waiting times for support services, extend the opening hours of libraries. And I guess we need to smile and say ‘Please don’t’ to that student who threatens to withdraw as payback for what she perceives as poor customer service.
Of course, none of this comes cheap. Short of additional money to invest, for most of us, it is more a case of us using the resources already available to best effect.
But, before we do anything else, there might be one quick win we can run with. Perhaps it is worth us taking just a couple of minutes to remind ourselves and our colleagues – especially those less social media savvy – how instantly an interaction with a student could go from being two people talking in an office to becoming a fully-fledged United Airlines-style fiasco.
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