Universities’ Challenge

University education has expanded enormously in the last three decades. But economic circumstances and government action have now made recruitment of the best students an increasingly competitive issue for the whole sector. This is an area where social media can have a unique impact.

The changes in government support mean severe reductions in core income and the new fee-based landscape will be driven in good part by value-for-money considerations on the part of students e.g. students from further away; and by the restrictions on visas for overseas students. Nowhere is this competition more evident than in the race to attract high-achieving AAB students, who are to be excluded from number controls.

While new for the higher education sector, many of these issues will be familiar to brands seeking to differentiate themselves in a competitive marketplace undergoing a significant degree of ‘deregulation’. However, the funding changes are only one significant change; another is the degree to which social media have changed the landscape for all brand communications.

Much of the decade-old Cluetrain Manifesto has now become a reality. Brands now have less control than ever before over what is communicated about them via social media – and universities are subject to the same forces, especially with regard to recruitment. Prospective students’ perceptions of a university – and ultimately the decision to accept a place – are influenced not only by marketing and financial initiatives, but also by opinions expressed by peers on social media networks.

Of course universities can themselves participate far more easily and at lower cost than ever before. But to do so effectively, there needs to be a fundamental shift away from traditional, one-way communications to a genuinely two-way relationship that seeks real engagement rather than control.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that some British universities have embraced this change and are the equal of the best in the world. Others, it seems, ‘could do better if tried harder…’. Sociagility will be inviting UK universities to participate in an online survey soon to establish which ones warrant a social First and which are headed for a Fail.

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