27th May 2016

Why there’s a revolution going on in higher education

Following years of relatively modest fees, £9000 a year tuition has become the norm across all universities in England and Wales since 2012. This cap is due to be lifted in 2017 meaning that the best universities will have the ability to charge significantly more. Foreign students already pay much more than their UK counterparts for the same education.

In this new world, students are being turned into powerful customers and universities into brand savvy service providers as the key relationships in the sector are being redefined. Gone are the days when students thought they had lucked out because they only had 2 hours of lectures a week. For £9,000 a year they expect more. A lot more.

Our recent experience working with the University of Greenwich, Loughborough University and the University of West England has ensured we have a pretty good handle on how the sector is evolving.

So what’s changed?

Universities now have to proactively sell. Even Oxford and Cambridge and the Russell Group universities are feeling the pressure as they now compete on an international level. Every university has to define what it stands for beyond the basics of good courses and teaching. Establishing clear points of difference will help attract the right students and build a profile in the marketplace. This is unfamiliar territory for many Higher Education institutions, often run by career academics, who have little experience or understanding of strategic marketing and brand.

Providing more than just an education. Beyond the lectures, coursework, assessments and examinations, universities are now in the business of providing a rounded student experience. The quality of the campus environment, student accommodation, social and sporting activities and extra-curricula opportunities make a huge difference. Running a good student union bar is not enough as students want more from their time at university than a weekly hangover. NSS (National Student Survey) scores are an annual reminder of what students increasingly expect.

Winning the war for talent. As Universities battle to climb the league tables they need great teaching staff to engage and inspire students. A boring lecture with a few dusty overhead charts no longer makes the cut. Students want to know they are learning from the best. And the best only want work in a university that will help them progress their own research. Recruiting and retaining talented academic and professional staff is critical to success and they are often even more demanding than the students!

Efficiency. Behind the scenes universities are big businesses with large budgets, complex internal structures, expensive real estate, critical systems and processes and demanding employees and customers to manage. Just like most large private sector organisations. In the quest for improved efficiency and effectiveness, our higher education institutions needs to harness innovation to reduce cost and improve outcomes.

Focus on outcomes. The ultimate measure of success for any university is the employability of their students upon graduation. Striking the balance between helping a student gain an academic qualification and equipping them for life beyond the lecture theatre is focusing the minds of many Vice Chancellors. Being well connected with future employers and thinking creatively about how to improve the job opportunities for graduates is a top priority. Universities are increasingly working hand in hand with a plethora of public and private sector partners to create added value on an individual and societal level.

Academic institutions are having to think about their ‘commercial strategies’, ‘the customer experience’ and their ‘brand positioning’ as they wake up to the harsh reality of winning and retaining customers in an increasingly competitive marketplace. That’s before any of us have really dealt with what the implications of BREXIT could be.

There is undoubtedly turmoil in the sector as universities adjust to a whole new reality. What is now certain is that change is a necessary constant. The universities that embrace this new world, redefine their place in it and focus on the quality of the wider educational experience are the ones that will succeed.

The UK had always led the way as a ‘Knowledge Economy’ and our education sector is a global success story. Every year close to 500,000 students from 200 nations come to the UK to study at a school, college or university and 600,000 more come to do an English language course.

In addition, over 500,000 international students each year take a UK qualification overseas – for example, online or at a UK overseas campus. (source: British Council).

It’s an exciting but challenging time to be at university.



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Rebecca Battman

Managing Director

Rebecca is the founder and Managing Director of rbl. An experienced brand and marketing professional, Rebecca has spent over 30 years helping clients to build, design and manage their brands.

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