The British degree goes on sale

Universities are as desperate for students as students are for courses. And with flat-rate tuition fees on the way, degrees will have to offer good value for money. Maureen O'Connor explains how the higher education system is becoming consumer-led
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In the struggle to recruit students, universities no longer treat A-level and Scottish Highers results as their starting gun. Marketing departments are working all year round and reach fever pitch at this time of year. At the weekend, one college in Cumbria was offering mobile phones to new recruits. On Monday, the University of the South Bank unveiled its solar-powered car at Waterloo station. The lure for potential engineering students is the chance to work on a state-of-the-art vehicle which has already raced across Australia and is set to return there next year.

It is often forgotten that universities and colleges are just as anxious to fill their places in Clearing as prospective students are to get in. Institutions which under-recruit are penalised financially. Hence, a Clearing advertising bonanza which has been above pounds 3m for the past two years and has doubled since 1992.

Most higher education institutions now regard a marketing policy as an essential element of their management strategy. The Clearing advertising boom extends across both national and local newspapers and television and is shifting into Teletext, Ceefax and the Internet. The two Independent newspapers dominate, taking more than 45 per cent of the national newspaper market between them.

Some institutions have always had to advertise harder than others. In many areas there is a proliferation of institutions-London alone has 12 universities. Carving out a unique selling image is crucial. Andy Masheter, in charge of marketing for South Bank University in London, with its main base at the Elephant and Castle, accepts that as the archetypal inner- city ex-polytechnic, he has a hard row to hoe.

"We embrace it," he says. "And our feedback is that we are seen as a friendly place. We tell prospective students that they will have to deal with areas like this in real life, and studying here will help. Of course we have to deal with issues like security, but we don't feel we should apologise for offering an urban environment."

But advertising is no longer the preserve of the allegedly hard-to-fill former polytechnics. The 60 per cent of Ucas institutions which advertised in national newspapers last year include big names such as Leeds, Birmingham and Manchester. On average, advertising expenditure by the "old" universities went up by almost 23 per cent between 1995 and 1996 as the struggle for students became more intense.

The 40 per cent of Ucas institutions which did not advertise in 1996 tended to be either those which are never likely to need to, Oxford and Cambridge and the medical schools, or specialist colleges of drama, music, health or agriculture, which appeal to a particularly narrow clientele.

Riley Research, which has analysed the Clearing system since 1993, noted a slight down-turn in university spending in the national media last year. The firm reckons that for a variety of reasons it may have peaked. They see a new split between universities which still need to recruit nationally and those which have decided to concentrate on their regional catchment area - something the Dearing report recommended.

It is becoming a question of whether you rely on mobile phones to persuade young people to leave home or promote your solar car to the thousands of potential students living within commuting distance who pass through Waterloo station every day. And since Dearing and the Government's fee and loan proposals, all the universities know that the ground is shifting under their feet.

Professor David Warner, pro-vice-chancellor of the University of Central England in Birmingham, reckons that this will be the last year we see the present Clearing rush. "If more students really do opt to take up places this year, that will reduce the numbers anyway next year," he says. "And we simply do not know how many young people and mature students will be put off completely by the fees proposals. The devil is going to be in the detail."

Professor Warner is also worried about the impact that the high exchange rate is going to have on students from the rest of Europe who are considering a course in the U.K. Until now, the Greeks and the Irish have found it a cheap option. If they go elsewhere, there will be more places free for British students and the intense marketing effort at this time of year will be chasing fewer and fewer applicants. (Students from outside the EU are a separate, and lucrative, self-financing market.)

At home, there are distinct signs of change. Last year's experience of fewer prospective home students in Clearing meant that calls to university hotlines tailed away within two weeks of the results coming out. But universities know that marketing is not simply about advertising vacant places. It has to be part of a long-term strategy. They are in a system which has become more consumer-oriented than it used to be-and is likely to become more so when students feel that they are paying personally for the privilege of being there. Open days, glossy prospectuses, videos for sixth forms, and market research are all tools of the modern university marketing department.

A top priority is persuading school-leavers and mature students to apply to your institution in the first place. HEIST (the Higher Education Information Services Trust) has done market research to try to find out what motivates candidates who turn down offers during the Ucas process. It concluded that decisions are heavily influenced by the way candidates are treated at interviews and open days. Persuading people to visit is important, but making sure that the experience is a positive one when they get there is even more vital. Low marks for marketing went to institutions where receptionists were unfriendly and interviewers remote; top marks to those which made visitors welcome, showed them round the campus and explained exactly where they would be studying and living.

Riley Research tested the user-friendliness of hotlines. The lesson that dedicated lines for applicants and an efficient answering service are needed has evidently been learnt. But Riley still found a small minority of so-called "hotlines" constantly engaged or not answered at all. And some of the people who responded were unhelpful, incompetent or impolite. Some promises to send either prospectuses or details of individual courses were not kept.

Nobody knows how many prospective students are turned off by poor marketing. But the coming upheaval in student finance is concentrating minds on what is needed to attract students in future. Ironically, it is the "new" universities that have had to advertise hardest over the past few years - pioneering open days, circulating videos to schools, and, like Leicester's De Montfort, venturing into the high-profile world of television advertising-which feel they may now be at some advantage.

With their high numbers of students living at home-up to 70 per cent in some cases-and close links with neighbouring schools and further education colleges, they think they will be well-placed if students faced with massive loans decide that living at home while studying makes economic sense. In future, it may be the prestigious universities who have attracted students from all over the UK who may have to work hardest to fill their places.

"When people perceive themselves as paying for what universities offer, I think they will become more choosy," says Andy Masheter, "And I am sure that one of the things they will have to be convinced about is the need to go away from home." The days of marketing experts in higher education do not appear to be numbered