The Chancellor’s announcement of government-backed loans for (young) postgraduate students is the latest staging post in a trail of reform that has had a profound impact on UK universities. With the exception perhaps of banking, higher education has undergone a more transformative experience during the coalition years than just about any other sector you can think of.
There’s been wholesale reform of the way in which teaching is funded, with increased fees and loans almost entirely replacing direct government grant, upping the expectations of students keen to see a return on their (deferred) investment. Alongside this, the numbers of students each institution can recruit has been uncapped, making it much easier for the most popular institutions to attract recruits away from those in less demand. Universities can no longer rely on simply taking a block grant and filling their allocated places with students whose number is greater than the places on offer. They must now actively promote how they are more likely to meet the expectations of their target students than seemingly similar institutions. The addition of significant numbers of postgraduate students newly equipped with the allocative power of subsidised loans will only exacerbate this market imperative.
The coalition may not have created the Research Excellence Framework (REF), but one of its earliest moves was to instruct the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) to concentrate research funding only on the most highly rated work. The subsequent scramble to recruit and retain research superstars has been fierce.
The regulatory environment has also shifted. Most notably, the Government’s efforts to reduce migration through more stringent visa requirements has resulted in a fall in the numbers of lucrative international students, forcing many institutions to revaluate their business model. Meanwhile, the relaxing of the requirements needed to adopt the university title and to offer degrees has opened up opportunities for innovative new entrants, like Regents University and Norwich University of the Arts.
The creative disruption extends to the partners universities are increasingly forging alliances with. Whether pathway providers, investors in estates and student accommodation or conveners of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS), a host of non-university players are helping to change the game.
The scale and multi-dimensional nature of these shifts make higher education a fascinating case study through which to explore the changing nature of corporate communications. How are university marketeers responding to the increased competitive pressure? What are they doing to understand what potential students are looking for and define a proposition that matches these expectations? What content are they developing to engage potential students in this proposition, and what platforms are they using to carry it?
How are communications offices making complexity compelling by translating research for a variety of audiences? What are they doing to prepare researchers for the unfamiliar business and political environments within which their work can have an impact? How are they using innovative formats to capture research findings? How is engagement with external partners working and what is being done to make sure that longstanding university staff are not alienated?
Most of all, what are universities doing to differentiate themselves from one another. The best universities are aggregating disparate features into coherent identities that set them apart from competitors. For instance, among those Linstock works with, we’ve seen Newcastle University carve out a position as a ‘world class civic university’ taking on the big societal challenges of the day; while Aston University is nurturing a profile for translatable research having an immediate impact on business and policy. Understanding how they, and others, are doing so could help all communications professionals wrestling with the challenges of integration.
In the New Year Linstock is going to be looking closely at the higher education sector to try and answer some of these questions. We’ll be deconstructing success stories and putting forward our own ideas for universities to take on board. The dramatic scale of change in HE has launched a wave of comms innovation that has yet to break. We look forward to sharing our observations on the direction in which it is heading.