Vampires, US lessons, KIS and social media at CASE Higher Education conference

It takes a brave conference organiser to have their closing plenary hosted by Dracula. But, caped and fanged, Lorna Somers, the highly respected director of development at McMasters University in Canada, vamped her role brilliantly with a funny, energetic and pointed presentation. She clearly has a beckoning career in stand-up but she pulled together serious conference themes relating to the internal and external challenges facing the HE sector here in the UK and the urgent need for marketing, comms, recruitment and development departments to work together to overcome them. It marked a dramatic and successful finale to the CASE Europe 2011 five day event on higher education I attended in Manchester last week.

I’ve said before that I believe the sector is in major transition towards a North American model, and CASE conference delegates were looking for answers to the  questions this raises.

There were many excellent suggestions on offer. Peter Slee, Deputy VC at Huddersfield, co-presented entertainingly (albeit in a suit) on lessons learned from a study tour to the USA. He said that “marketing universities in the UK has been like falling off a log, frankly” but is now changing fast. The UK has much to learn from North America, he believes, where a fees-driven system requires HE institutions to be much more proactive when marketing to prospective students, alumni and donors. He concludes that the pressure to reduce the overall ‘cost of college’ will now increase, active price differentiation between HE institutions will soon emerge and the fight for non-quota AAB students has only just begun. I can’t help but wonder how many of our universities here in the UK are really ready for all this….

Other sessions, like that from MD of The Student Room, Jamie O’Connell, presented research showing how students rank the importance of the new KIS criteria and their trusted sources of information. No surprise that prospective students trust existing students more than anyone else and that online sources – and social media – are key to how many form their opinions of where to study.

The good news is that most of the delegates from our leading institutions, many of whom were live tweeting and blogging throughout, clearly ‘get it’. And from the conversations I had, some universities seem to be well on the way to sorting out their brand positioning and marketing communications – and engaging with social media. So that’s all OK, then?

Well, no actually. As Madame Dracula herself pointed out, before we here in the UK can really catch up with the USA, many of our universities  will need to address their overall lack of marketing focus and the fragmentation and confusion of effort amongst the various departments responsible for recruitment, marketing, development and communications.

Perhaps social media – and the requirement for authenticity, transparency and coherence – can be the catalyst for all relevant departments to work together to create an advantage in this new, increasingly competitive environment.

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