Strategic Marketing for Student Recruitment: a vital approach for today’s higher education sector

I have had the pleasure of being in the UK quite a bit recently and the changes occurring in the higher education sector are truly astounding. We were once again the premier sponsor at the CASE Europe Annual Conference held in Manchester this year. And what a conference it was… high energy, fun, packed with great sessions and – as always – the most satisfying aspect of the conference was meeting so many interesting people. There was something quite different about the conference this year though, as there is a great deal of concern for British universities regarding the new fee structure scheduled to impact the 2012 class.

For those who might not know all the details, the British government has significantly cut funding to universities and as a result has forced a dramatic increase in tuition fees from approximately 3,000 GBP to up to 9,000 GBP. This profound financial shift from the ‘state to the student’ is happening within the span of only one academic year and certainly has many worried about its impact on UK universities and as importantly, students and their families.

Implied in this new fee structure is a heightened sense of competition as students contemplate their higher education choices; not just in the UK but within the European Union and the rest of the world. While it’s difficult to predict exactly how students will respond, early indications show that enrolment levels will not be negatively affected by this sudden and dramatic increase in fees for 2012. However, while enrolment may be relatively unaffected in terms of sheer numbers, according to the NUS (National Union of Students), 65% of students believe that if they are expected to pay more for their university experience, they will have higher expectations.

Such a drastic change in the basic structure of funding higher education puts the student at the centre of the storm… and dare I say the student has become the customer with significant influence and buying power.

From the lens of a CRM company focused on enquiry management, recruitment and admissions, it is becoming abundantly clear that operating in a business-as-usual mode will not suffice for British universities. In fact, one thing that appeared to be quite different at this year’s CASE Europe conference was the role of each university’s marketing department… from being seen, historically, as outsiders at the ‘top table’ to being pivotal in determining and communicating an institution’s value proposition.

As many from the UK know, Professor Peter Slee is a wonderful speaker and this year’s conference was no exception. Peter is the Deputy Vice Chancellor at the University of Huddersfield and one of the sessions he was involved in identified the evolution of the role of marketing at a university in three ‘generations’. The first generation is ‘push marketing’: simply sending out “stuff”, be it a brochure, prospectus or one’s message via websites or email. Most universities in the UK and, for that matter many around the world, are still in this first phase of higher education marketing according to Peter.

The second generation of marketing in higher education evolves into the concept of ‘brand management’: positioning the university and being responsible for consistently delivering the brand message and the brand promise. Quite a number of universities have adopted this approach for their marketing department, yet certainly not all.

And finally the third generation of marketing in higher education, according to Slee, will develop into a much more strategic approach where decisions will increasingly be made based on market intelligence. Not all universities cater to the same audience; not all universities have the same ambition or focus (teaching, research, employability) nor should they. This kind of intelligence needs to be taken into account when a university decides on its position, and moving forward cannot occur without this type of intelligence either. Slee did recognise that only a handful of universities in the UK have entered this generation with such a strong emphasis on strategic marketing. Having said this, he also suggests there will be a rapid increase in the number of universities adopting this approach – particularly in light of the tuition fee driven environment and increased competition globally for students.

Strategic marketing intelligence is essential for all executive decisions, and also for student recruitment. “Know thyself to attract the students you want” was the title of our session at the CASE conference and it meant just that: as a university you need to know very well who you are, who your real competitors are, which audience you cater to in order to make the most out of your recruitment efforts. Two of our clients – the University of Leicester and Edge Hill University shared their stories on how they have employed CRM to transform their recruitment and admissions processes.

The year ahead for universities in Britain will no doubt be uncertain and maybe even a little scary for some. Which universities will get it right and move ahead, riding the wave of these recent developments? And which ones will not? And what will it mean to students and their families?

Higher education in the UK will certainly never be the same based on these massive shifts set to occur in 2012. Whatever the outcome, one of the likely effects will be the more rapid evolution towards that “third generation” of higher education marketing that Peter Slee discussed. There is clearly a lot of anxiety surrounding these changes, but change may not necessarily be a bad thing. For the universities who have already refined a student-centric approach to recruitment, these changes could represent an opportunity to gain an advantage in a hyper-competitive global market. For others, it could be the ultimate realisation that business as usual is not an option; that in fact imperfect movement is far preferred to perfect paralysis.

Ben Franklin famously stated “when you’re finished changing, you’re finished.” For higher education, both within Britain and beyond… the changes are just beginning.

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