June 14, 2012, by Adrian Mateo

Why we need to recapture ‘marketing’ from the ‘marketisation’ of higher education debate

Critics of marketing in higher education (HE) argue that a fundamental and inexorable conflict exists between the intrinsic purposes and values of education and what has been described as an increasing shift towards ‘marketisation’ or ‘corporatisation’ i.e. treating HE as a commodity open to market forces with students as its primary customers. Some have asserted that marketisation is an attack on the liberal structures and values that have enabled universities to flourish academically and intellectually. Others maintain that the quality of HE, traditionally judged on the basis of inputs such as teaching and research excellence, is being undermined by the imposition of artificial benchmarks based purely on outputs and economic performance. Some even claim that universities are being pressurised to transfer their allegiance from the academic to the operational and encode the values of the commercial sector almost without reflection, questioning whether education is still seen as a public good (of personal and democratic importance in its own right regardless of the socio-economic background of students), or merely a critical component of material gain and individual, competitive advancement.

The bleak canvas painted by detractors implies the existence of a once superior and fairer epoch, an apotheosis where universities focussed on pursuing pure intellectual enquiry with appreciative and compliant students, and in which state intervention was primarily directed at providing financial support. But is this rose-tinted perspective an accurate and indeed desirable interpretation of higher education or merely visceral rhetoric fuelled by perceived disempowerment (a kind of professional bereavement) or simply a fear of change? Perhaps the UK, long regarded as a torchbearer for excellence in HE, can shed light on the debate.

In 1994 there were around 1.4 million students participating in higher education in the UK, according to the most recent figures released by the Higher Education Funding Council this now stands at 2.5 million, a staggering increase of almost 80%. Widening participation and diversity are also key features of this expansion. There are more students from state schools than ever before, a huge international student cohort, significant cultural diversity in the home student population, more disabled students and the largest number of mature students than at any other time. Phenomenal growth has also seen massive investment programmes to support teaching and learning and develop the physical infrastructure. The range and variety of course provision is unrecognisable from a generation ago. 20 years ago it was unthinkable to have done a degree in Popular Music Studies (Liverpool), Hairdressing Salon Management (Derby), Fashion and Lifestyle Products (Southampton Solent), Watersports Science and Development (Portsmouth), Contemporary Circus and Physical Performance (Bath Spa), Surf Science and Technology (Plymouth) or Puppetry (Central School of Speech and Drama, London). And it’s not just post-92 institutions who have exploited these new market conditions, Russell Group universities have also actively developed new courses such as Folk and Traditional Music (Newcastle), Profound and Complex Learning Disability (Manchester), Motor Sports Engineering Management (Sheffield) and Viking Studies (Nottingham). Seen like this, marketisation appears to have enabled new channels of intellectual enquiry and research rather than restrict academic freedoms and interests.

Like it or not, marketisation is now a feature of HE that will continue to polarise opinions and stir emotions. However, regardless of position on the debate, the unprecedented expansion of the sector has undeniably brought about significant benefits to the entire learning community. A critical discourse on the marketisation of HE is desirable if not fundamental in questioning the intrinsic nature and purposes of education, however juxtaposing the arguments in opposition to marketisation against the realities of some its outcomes seems tinged with a degree of irony. For example, the dismantling of elitism, so prevalent in HE (especially prior to 1992 in the UK), is surely a universal aim for higher education.

But what of the relationship between ‘marketisation’ and ‘marketing’? That there is close symbiosis is clear, but in truth they represent distinctive aspects of the HE managerial discourse that have somehow become part of an indivisible vocabulary habitually misunderstood by universities. Disentangling marketing from marketisation is a tricky business. There is considerable internal resistance to marketisation in HE, which is in turn manifested in negative attitudes towards the concept of marketing. Moreover, universities have failed to properly domesticate the marketing concept and shape it into a home-grown philosophy, resulting in the application of ideas imported from the business sector. Finally, the apparent inability of HE to identify itself with a specific offering, epitomised in the battles between competing positions on research versus teaching and learning, has exacerbated doubts about the relevancy of marketing in the sector. However, whereas marketisation is a relatively recent and to an extent organic societal phenomenon, marketing is not just a set of techniques designed to improve corporate competitiveness but a philosophical framework guiding the institution in the development of its offering and its relationships with internal and external stakeholders.

Research undertaken on HE marketing in universities has identified that it is still a relatively underdeveloped concept. Its strategic importance within HE has been widely acknowledged by Vice Chancellors and senior personnel but not matched by occupying a place at the strategic table within most institutions or becoming fully embedded within their strategic vision and operations. The potential contribution of marketing to the strategic agenda in HE is significant, it is about extending and defining choice, more accurately meeting the needs of stakeholders and enhancing quality in provision. From this perspective, marketing can be seen as expansive, innovative and responsive, not reductionist or intransigent. However, the prevailing view of marketing is narrow and dominated by a belief that it is based on imported ideas from the business world and whose primary purposes are to increase demand, beat the competition and achieve economic goals. Moreover, an emphasis on promotion and external relations activities remains dominant at key levels of university administration. Set against this background, marketing has become inextricably entangled within the marketisation discourse, consigning it to the margins of organisational policy and ensuring continued internal resistance and negativity.

Recapturing the relevance of marketing from the marketisation of HE debate will largely depend on two key foundations: reconceptualising the marketing philosophy; and domesticating the concept of marketing at an institutional level. If marketing can drive the institutions’ agenda to build a learning community based on long-term relationships, open communication, and the co-creation of mutual value, it can justly assume its place at the strategic table.

Adrian Mateo (Marketing Manager, Faculty of Social Sciences, The University of Nottingham)

Posted in GlobalisationHigher EducationInternationalisationMarketisation