Published: December 10, 2015

“The desire to stand out to students is strong, but the line between giving a good account of your university and over-selling it is thin.”

Of all the changes in higher education over the last few years, perhaps the most significant is the nature of the relationship between student and university. Students, now more than ever, view university education as an investment in their future. They want to see tangible benefits from the experience including strong employment prospects on graduation. And the transition towards a world in which student is customer and university is service provider has been intensified by the arrival of the Consumer Rights Act (CRA) earlier this year.

With many of the Act’s provisions coming into force at the beginning of October, the effects are already being felt on the ground – particularly in communications and marketing departments.
The key point – and the most frightening for practitioners – is that universities not only have to deliver what they promise, but must also be able to prove it.

The trouble comes because many of the clauses in the CRA lend themselves more readily to the purchase of traditional goods and services. Walking into a shop to buy a dishwasher, or paying someone to tile your bathroom is pretty much a one way transaction. Higher education on the other hand is more of a two-way street. A student doesn’t buy a defined product. They shape much of their experience themselves, and what they get out can depend greatly on what they put in.

For universities, competition for students is fierce. With the removal of the cap on student numbers, and Clearing now seeing upward as well as downward corrections after A-level results day, the pool of potential students is far more fluid than it was even a few years ago.

In this environment, the desire to stand out to students is strong, but the line between giving a good account of your university and over-selling it is thin.

The CRA makes the chief tenet of good communications – that it should always be evidence-based – a legal necessity. Every statement a university makes about the experience of studying, living and graduating needs to be supported. The good news is that doing that groundwork and gathering that supporting evidence can make your communications more effective at a time when the CRA could level the reputational playing field. By forcing evidence out into the open and making institutions liable for selling a bill of goods, long-held reputations are made vulnerable. That’s frightening if you’re used to trading off a long standing reputation, but a dazzling opportunity if, like so many, you’re a high quality institution hamstrung by previous rigidity in the market.

Internally, the struggle might be harder. For universities and staff used to thinking of students as partners or colleagues, suddenly viewing them as consumers will feel uncomfortable and counter to the prevailing ethos. Dealing with this change in mindset could be the toughest hurdle to overcome.

One response is to focus not on the course as the product but on the things that already set you apart – be that world-leading research, high quality teaching, or boosting employability. Staff and students can be rallied around that key message. Universities that take a thematic approach, bringing together the work of multiple schools, and working across departments, are the ones that are likely to do this best.

The full impact of the CRA will only be felt once students begin to graduate, and question what their tuition fees have bought them. Until then, while it is right to be cautious, it’s also important to view the changes as an opportunity – formalise your strategy and structures, build an evidence base, and you can challenge established reputations.

Jon Bennett
Managing Director, Linstock Communications


  1. Simon Pride says:

    Great article, Jon!

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