THURSDAY 18 OCT 2018 3:05 PM

BREXIT AND THE UNIVERSITY CHALLENGE

The referendum result may have taken the university sector by surprise, but many institutions are now rethinking their marketing approaches as a result. Lawrie Holmes examines the changes and challenges facing the UK’s higher education sector

In the last few days of August, universities were a scene of frenzied excitement as they sought to fill places with UK school leavers through the clearing system. But in the build up to the new academic year most UK institutes will start facing up to the harsh reality that Brexit creates for universities, that of fewer students from EU countries and potentially reduced funding in years to come.

Phil Chapman, director of engagement at London Metropolitan University, says, “Like businesses, and I’m sure many other institutions, we have adjusted London Metropolitan University’s budget projections to anticipate a potential fall in the numbers of EU nationals who study with us.”

But he insists the university is not expecting a loss of all or even most of its EU students as many are UK or London domiciles and would continue to be eligible to access student funding. “The government has already announced extensions to EU student eligibility for student funding and we expect they will take further steps to seek to retain EU student access to UK Universities,” he adds.

Nevertheless, there are already signs in the university sector that Brexit may be starting to bite. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has analysed support from the EU’s Horizon 2020 research programme and shows that the proportion of funds allocated to universities in the UK had dropped to 24.22% by the end of May, down from a high of 25.47% in February 2017. However, the actual monetary value has increased from €2.08m to €3.07m as a result of the increased participation in the programme by about 2,500 people.

While universities may not be ringing alarm bells, there will certainly be a heightened awareness across institutions of the need to find new sources of capital, and that marketing programmes to sell the universities will need to take a new tack.

Brexit is not the only challenge for universities. Increasing competition between universities and more savvy Millennials who will pay up to £10,000 if they are from the UK or up to £35,000 a year if they are foreign students, before living costs, is one issue. Another is the recent tightening in the numbers of visa controls for international students since 2011.

In addition, the ever wider set of channels with which it is possible to engage Millennials makes it a complicated environment for ensuring a good return on marketing investment. Chapman says, “The UK higher education sector has become more open, more competitive and much more useful information has become easily available to students to help them make good choices.”

The game is on for universities to find ever more creative marketing solutions to attract students. For years, universities have been moving from traditional advertising to more focused media such Facebook and Instagram to deliver interesting storytelling.

For example, in 2014 Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. launched an award-winning social media programme ‘Georgetown Stories,’ featured first-person video blogs recorded by 11 undergraduate students throughout the academic year.

Similarly, the University of Sheffield’s response to the referendum outcome in 2016 was to reinvigorate its #WeAreInternational campaign, first launched in 2013 in response to international changes in student visas. To emphasise the university sector’s commitment to diversity and inclusivity post-Brexit, the University of Sheffield created a series of socially shareable images and videos telling the stories of international students and staff living, working and studying in the UK. This digital toolkit was then shared via the #WeAreInternational website.

The referendum outcome not only took the university sector by surprise, it has also jolted many institutions into rethinking their marketing strategy. Take St Mary’s in Twickenham, a Catholic university in west London and one of the UK’s smaller higher education establishments.

Professor John Brewer, the pro vice-chancellor for global engagement at St Mary’s is a former director of sports science at pharma giant GSK, who has worked on marketing campaigns for brands such as Lucozade Sport. He says, “Clearly Brexit is going to be a high concern for universities, whether they have a high proportion of students from the EU or not. We’re looking at that position and we are focusing most of our international growth on non-EU countries. That’s almost a deliberate strategy to be sure that we are not likely to see a severe impact in our international numbers as a result of a possible loss of EU students.”

Brewer says the university’s approach mirrors that of any corporate entity faced by a weakening sector by ratcheting up diversification into China, India and South America. “We are working very hard to diversify our international recruitment into new and non-EU markets so that we are still able to continue the raid growth of our international numbers that we are currently seeing,” he says.

The marketing team at St Mary’s still uses some traditional routes such as attending fairs and other events in a wide range of countries, as well as targeting a lot of Catholic institutions in all parts of the world.

But they are also increasingly using social media to target students, says Brewer. “We’re not a university that is flushed with money to put adverts in newspapers, and we also don’t believe that channel works. So our marketing team will focus very much on Google ads, on Facebook type advertising, BuzzFeed, all of the stuff that young people tend to use so that we get as broad a reach as possible,” he says.

St Mary’s is also innovating in other ways to ensure its message is carried as far as possible. An example is ‘course finder,’ an online questionnaire that asks viewers a series of quirky questions such as a reader’s favourite book and favourite YouTube channel and then tells them what their ideal degree programme would be. “At the last count there were 30,000 hits for ‘course finder,’” says Brewer. “I think we’re always trying to do things differently, we’re also very lucky that we’ve got some quite high profile alumni – to get Instagram postings to raise the brand and profile of St Mary’s University.”

“The game is on for universities to find ever more creative marketing solutions to attract students. For years, universities have been moving from traditional advertising to more focused media such Facebook and Instagram to deliver interesting storytelling”

But while some universities are driving wholeheartedly into new directions, others are still trying to fathom out how the Brexit process will pan out before moving accordingly.

A University of Aberdeen spokesman says, “In common with other universities we have carried out a detailed analysis of the potential impact of Brexit across key areas, along with recommendations for each envisaged scenario. There are obvious limitations to our planning as we await the outcome of negotiations with the EU and the consequences for sector funding, however throughout this period our emphasis remains on delivering the world-class learning experience that the University of Aberdeen is renowned for.”

The University of Ulster takes a similar tack, with a spokesperson saying, “Like all universities, we are considering the possible implications of Brexit and making all necessary preparations.

He adds, “Ulster University staff and students benefit significantly from all-island initiatives dependent on the EU funding framework and we are committed to research that is globally significant. The position of the future of EU funded research remains ambiguous. Whilst the UK government has made clear that it wishes to continue with Horizon 2020 programmes that are of benefit to the economy and to science, clarity is awaited on an official framework for those priority themes.”

For the University of Hertfordshire, its global outlook will ensure it thrives in the post-Brexit world. It states, “We work in many countries including China, Singapore, Canada, Malaysia and India and our international alumni reflects that. The university has 100 partners worldwide and is part of a global network of over 210,000 alumni as well as having leading relationships with industry across the world.”

On the whole, universities appear to be anchored somewhere between a wait and see approach and raising their digital exposure, which requires some but not huge amounts of specific targeting for each target audience.
A University of Greenwich spokesperson says the south east London institution is determined to keep partnerships it has in place across Europe, and to grow them in the future. “We have robust plans in place for the next three to five years which we believe will continue to bring students to our campuses in the UK and to those of our overseas partners.”

He says the university hasn’t changed its marketing channels and locations, but it has recently restructured its marketing team to better meet the needs of the university and its students. “This will also enable us to work more through the digital channels where we know our students consume content, and where we aim to inform them and inspire them to choose Greenwich for our world-leading research, silver rating for teaching excellence and our focus on employability,” says the spokesperson.  

Phil Chapman says that the London Metropolitan University’s marketing programme is unlikely to be affected specifically by Brexit but added that a range of media and touchpoints used by prospective university students is changing all the time.

“That’s because of the sort of people they are; curious, resourceful, interested, and tech literate,” he says. “We make far more use of search and digital media than we did four years ago, and we get much better data about how customers respond to that, we still use some traditional media, we still run events, because prospects benefit from real human interaction with academic and professional staff, and we still attend recruitment and careers events in Europe and internationally.

He adds, “The media we target and events we attend are selected based on traffic and response measurement so if we did see a significant change in EU student numbers coming to the UK we’d respond accordingly.”

Without a clear indication yet on what form Brexit will take, and to what degree the government will support the university, it’s understandable that many institutions are carefully observing which way the wind is blowing.

But the more savvy universities are aware that whether it’s a soft or hard Brexit, or even a no-deal outcome, they need to be increasingly innovative to capture new sources of revenue. When it comes to finding the right marketing channels for the post-Brexit era the game is most certainly on.

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