When you think about all the challenges facing higher education, what springs to mind? Brexit? Fees/funding? Diversity? Pensions? Questions around public value? Yes all of those things, but what’s the one thing that traverses all of these issues?
I’d argue that it’s differentiation, or more accurately the lack of differentiation or distinctiveness and genuine choice in the HE sector. But why?
Research. Education. Student Experience.
REF, TEF and NSS, amongst others, influence league tables and drive behaviour in UK universities. They focus competition in these three core domains, irrespective of the university’s core mission. The simple fact is that only a handful of universities can genuinely compete in all three (we know who they are), some can do two, others one.
But why is this a problem?
Cement. Yes that’s right. Cement. A commodity product, one bag is the same as the other. HE risks becoming well and truly stuck in it. Now there is nothing wrong with cement, it’s useful, in fact essential, stuff but when all things are equal, you need to start thinking differently.
So what are some of the strategies being employed across the sector to address competition?
· Invest to grow – massive investments, sometimes through bond issues, in both the physical estate and in the hope of creating critical mass in key research/teaching areas and ultimately increasing ‘market share’
· Invest abroad – overseas campus development, either through partnerships or through purpose-built estate.
· Invest in marketing/student recruitment – driving much needed student numbers through enhanced acquisition and conversion plans and the systems and processes that underpin them
· Invest in brand – the development and consistent application of a positioning, look and feel, tone of voice and associated management systems
· Product extension/modification – re-shaping product to maximise opportunities emerging from policy or market changes, for example Degree Apprenticeships
All of these, and more besides, are perfectly reasonable ways of addressing market competition. BUT. They assume that what’s needed is more of the same – more buildings, more academics to teach more students, more degree programmes, more student accommodation, more (hopefully better) marketing. But what if the answer is less, or fewer?
In the words of the Joker (Jack Nicholson, 1989): ‘this town needs an enema’. I think he meant disruption.
HE has, to a large extent, been untouched by the major disruption faced by other sectors from a new player, or players who tear up the rule book.
Take gyms. Once the preserve of the heavy lifter, now they are everywhere and accessible to everyone. They have never been more popular. Great news for bricks and mortar gyms? Maybe not. Group classes came in as a new, more sociable way to work out. Then the niche home workout video, then the mass market celebrity DVD. None of these has the impact of serial innovators like Les Mills who have successfully traversed the ‘in-gym’ to ‘workout at-home’ divide with an OnDemand service for their customers with increasingly busy lives. The same quality classes as you get in the gym, optimised for home work-out, streamed or downloaded to your device (TV, mobile, PC). Marketed well, and supported by an online community, workout advice, guides and schedules, hints and tips. More convenient and at £11.95 a month, much better value than a gym membership.
So what does this mean for HE? No, this isn’t about MOOCS, although there is a part for them to play.
As a marketer you’d expect me to advocate investment in marketing, brand and customer service – yes that is needed, in the right areas and correctly balanced. Over-investment in tactical short term campaigns at the expense of long term brand building risks institutions getting stuck in an annual cycle of student-chasing. Another danger is investing in external brand building at the expense of the all-important product, culture and systems change needed to meet the brand promise.
The bottom line is that universities need to be on their toes, fitter, more lean, race-fit. Because with the HE sector worth an estimated £100bn to the UK economy, it’s only a matter of time before a new market entrant gets it right. A metaphorical Les Mills OnDemand subscription.
This is about the core product and whether the old model that’s worked pretty much unchanged for 100s of years needs a re-think. A genuine, strategic rethink. A new differentiated more single-minded product. Less might well be more.