The times they are a-changin’

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It’s impossible to have picked up a newspaper or sat in front of the television during the last 12 months and not realised that there are great changes afoot in higher education.

Aggregate student numbers in the UK have doubled in 20 years with a downturn in the national economy prompting a review of higher education funding. In England the balance of funding is going to change – with much of the cost of courses switching from the taxpayer to the student.

Like many industry professionals I’ve worried how the changes will affect me personally – how will my role change and what challenges will I face in trying to fulfil it?

At the start of this month I attended the CASE Europe Annual Conference which was held in my hometown of Manchester.

'The Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) is a professional association serving educational institutions and the advancement professionals who work on their behalf in alumni relations, communications, development, marketing and allied areas.'

As a group of professionals we are all interested in furthering higher education, promoting its benefits and aiding our institutions in recruiting the best students and getting the most funding possible.

Having attended the conference in Glasgow last year I was impressed with the level of knowledge of the speakers. They range from vice-chancellors, to marketing directors, to one of the founders of Facebook.

There were a few dominant themes that occurred time and again during the sessions I attended this year:

  • the government is determined to increase competition within the sector
  • universities must differentiate themselves in a changing marketplace
  • as an industry we need to sell the benefits of a university education
  • prospective students are consumers with more choice than ever before and with a myriad of ways to get information
  • our students expect a high return on investment

During the opening plenary I looked around and thought how great it is to sit in a room with six hundred passionate people – all determined to change alongside the challenges.

I feel strongly that marketing and communications teams within higher education will change - and hopefully for the better. We need to act more strategically and work across our institutions to give a clear and consistent message to our students, applicants and graduates.

In the future I think we will realise that students are going to make more informed and considered choices about which courses to study. They won’t stop coming – but they will be more educated before they arrive.

We'll be working with students from 'cradle to grave' - we can't just cultivate prospective students and then pick things back up when they are alumni. It's important that we recognise the importance of our current students as reputation ambassadors and community builders.

Getting back to the office my fears about higher fees putting students off are allayed. I think that the benefits of a university education will always remain clear.

Perhaps my judgement was clouded by learning that we have been awarded Sunday Times University of the Year 2011-12.

As the great Bob Dylan said:

‘Your sons and your daughters are beyond your control,
your old road is rapidly changing’

Image of Manchester Central Convention Centre courtesy of AtilaTheHun (Flickr).

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