So What Do Universities Sell?

When I joined the OU as an academic over a decade ago, I spent my first 6 months or so asking everyone I met what it was the OU sold, only to be met with “go away, silly boy” sort of looks. (I still don’t know: courses/modules? degrees/qualifications? CPD products? consultancy? research interests, or capacity (though not development or innovation;-)?! If nothing else, the demographics of our paying customers has changed over that period (“Open University may be in its 40s – but students are getting younger“); but does that mean that what we’re selling has actually changed too? Who knows?!)

That universities are now businesses competing in a marketplace is undeniable, and increasingly looks as if it is opening up to private enterprises (Publishing giant Pearson looks set to offer degrees) who are allowed expected to talk up the ability to generate profits (rather than, err, building up reserves and new buildings;-). See for example Doug Clow’s piece on Apollo Group results – BPP and University of Phoenix where he starts to unpick Apollo Group’s reported financials. (It’s worth remembering where the profits are expected to come from, of course… e.g. Doug again: Tuition Fees and the costs of HE).

So what happens when the market hots the university? More and more marketing, maybe…?

Here’s a round-up of the latest OU job ads…

  • Director of Communications (£88,769 – £100,763): “The Open University has been providing life-changing learning experiences for over 40 years and now has 250,000 students. We make a major contribution to choice and innovation in higher education, social mobility and enriching the skills of the workforce through world class teaching and research.
    “The Director of Communications works closely with the Vice-Chancellor and Executive to develop and implement a communications strategy to support delivery of the corporate strategy, build and develop relationships with key external stakeholders, ensure consistent delivery of brand, protect and develop reputation and develop organisational culture.
    “This is a rare and exciting opportunity for an energetic and visionary person with a passion for education to drive communications activities to build our reputation as the world leader in flexible learning.”
  • Marketing Planning and Programme Manager, Marketing (B2B) (£46,510- £52,347): “The post has been created to assist the University to develop its marketing capacity specifically to the B2B Employer Engagement area. It will be essential to harness the energies of academic and academic related staff in the University’s Business Development units, service units and regions to develop a more effective marketing strategy. This will require planning, modelling, project management, influencing and networking skills of the highest order, and an ability to adapt leadership/management style to an academic context.”
  • Two Programme Communications Managers, Marketing (£36,715 – £43,840): “Working within a small team, you will be responsible for planning, developing and delivering a broad range of marketing acquisition or retention campaigns to meet student number targets.
    “The position requires a proven ability to develop & implement successful marcomms strategies that have the support of key stakeholders. The successful candidate will have a full mix of marketing experience, including a clear understanding of disciplines such as direct & digital marketing, advertising & event management to name a few. This role requires excellent communications & project management skills, ideally twinned with a strong commercial background.”
  • Web Assistant Producer Open Learn (Explore), Open Broadcasting Unit (£29,853 – £35,646): “Earlier this year the OU launched an updated public facing, topical news and media driven site. The site bridges the gap between BBC TV viewing and OU services and functions as the new ‘front door’ to Open Learn and all of the Open University’s open, public content. We are looking for a Web Assistant Producer with web production/editing skills.
    “You will work closely with a Producer, 2 Web Assistant Producers, the Head of Online Commissioning and many others in the Open University, as well as the BBC.”

And whilst the OU – like many other HEIs – is doing its utmost to keep recruitment of new academic staff to a minimum, and allowing natural wastage to reduce staffing further, it’s good to know that at least posts like the above count as academic related:

Academic related jobs at the OU

PS if you have any ideas about what it is that universities actually sell, please let me know in a comment…;-)

PPS Relevant to the above ads, and picking up on a couple of tweets I posted last week, I’m intrigued to know how university communications departments measure their impact? Presumably (despite being academic related) it’s not got a lot to do with being referenced in academic journals?;-) But how do they measure their impact? Answers in the comments, please…:-)

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

13 thoughts on “So What Do Universities Sell?”

  1. The OU sells something completely different to other universities.

    In a world increasingly dominated by degree apartheid, universities are selling the appropriate skin colour; that is, being able to say that you have a degree.

    An interesting read, in order to help answer your question, would be, “Disciplined Minds: A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul-Battering System That Shapes Their Lives, the university system is a critical part of becoming a ‘professional’.

    However, the OU is not part of this system. I don’t mean to try and flatter but the OU is the place where people go to be educated for themselves rather than to be educated for exploitation by others.

  2. Universities especially back in the day was a place of prestige, where if you got accepted into University it was a self selecting group of individuals with High Academic skills.

    Business knew that if someone went to University that they were hard workers. When they started letting in basically joe bloggs of the street people began debating what differentiated people of the street and people people from a more higher social group upbringing.

    In opening up like that companies thought well whats the difference, if Uni’s can do that so can companies.

    By basically levelling the playing field they have sucumbed to their own goals.

  3. Assuming a naive definition of “sell” – something you give someone in exchange for money – then we certainly don’t sell degrees or qualifications. We sell the opportunity and the resources for people to obtain a qualification (in various ways). We also sell them the accommodation and the lunches to support their physical presence while they are doing that. And the commemorative glassware to remind them of it when they finally graduate. And car parking!

    1. @les “we certainly don’t sell degrees or qualifications”
      True, but we advertise the promise (or at least, the expectation) that someone will come away with a degree; and under new funding regime, the possibly misleading belief of a salary premium on graduation?
      In OU case, students typically hand over credit card to purchase modules (known as courses in OU land until last year) at 10-60 credit point granularity, rather than necessarily signing on for a full degree/qualification. Part of distinction I was making for OU case at least is: do our students want to purchase 10-60 credit point chunks, or do they want qualifications?

      It may be that our market segments into very different sorts of purchasers – eg the group who want quals, cf. leisure learners who take the odd 10 point level 1 general interest course, cf. professionals wanting to update on a particular topic, cf. folk who need another qualification for career dev, etc etc

  4. For me, there is a BIG difference between the product we *think* we are selling and the product that students are buying (at least in many cases).

    I grew up with the OU logo on BBC2 – I have the same romantic attitude towards it now as I did then (I even watch it every now and again – this is the best one

    It offered me a glimpse of a world that I never thought I would ever have access to (I actually did grow up in a caravan park!). Blah blah, boy made good, blah, became architect, blah, did maths at OU, blah, blah, happily ever [insert_vegetable].

    So the OU is (on some level) selling something special and it’s mission statement is incredible at allowing this (the Open part of OU is a clue – read the statement again sometime…).

    BUT you have to look at this from the perspective of the student and ask what they think it is selling.

    Take 5 identities :

    1) Me. Wanted to study something challenging, always wanted to to ‘do’ maths, bought an OU course for christmas one year. Self motivated, knowledge seeking individual requires intellectual maths based content. Serious problem with commitment, so needs the financial penalty of course fee to finish course. Picture available.

    2) 30-40 Mid Career Person. Needs to improve skillset or add to knowledge to ensure further career progression. Self motivated, knowledge and skill seeking professional seeks new ideas and information to improve career and work chances. Qualifications would be a benefit, but being able to talk html or CSS is becoming a must. No photos.

    3) 18-25 School Leaver. No university places or don’t want to ‘go to university’. Seeks tertiary education because that is ‘what you do’ or sees it as important for CV and personal development. Qualification essential, flexibility required, strategic learning would definitely be considered. Entertaining and interesting content preferred – nothing that brings back past experiences please. Send @username for more…

    4) 21-50 Career Development. Social Worker (or other rigid career path) seeks CPD, additional qualifications, and training for further career development. Recognised qualifications only please – particularly those that have been targeted to a specific career/professional area. [What’s your breed of chicken on Facebook? Click Here…]

    5) Me (again). Professional needs to meet with like minded individuals for research and development of interesting ideas. PhD required (but deep down only because people stop looking at the CV if it’s not there). Frustrated idealist, who is interested in alternatives to just typing stuff but who probably requires some institutional shaping to understand referencing better. @username http://www.LinkedIn http://www.newcloudthingy etc

    (and I’m sure there are more…)

    Basically, the OU (perhaps more than any other institution) has such a wide variety of customers that what is surprising is that it has managed to maintain it’s basic shape (although, there are alternative explanations for this…).

    Each student will have their own goals in mind and (as an AL) it is quite often understanding what these are that is important. Not everyone seeks knowledge for the sake of it… strategic learning is (also) big business.

    Part of me wonders whether this question is a ‘what is art’ sub-type, specifically ‘what is education’?

    But, assuming that we cannot answer this philosophically or at least agree upon a single definition, we have to consider the above alternatives – What is the education we are offering’ and ‘What is the education our students want’.

    The Social Sciences course example, given above, demonstrates how close the ties are between product and student in some cases. This is no way intended to be a criticism – it is quite clear that SS students and courses have a real symbiosis that is quite unique and only a crazyperson would stop that because ‘it was not living up to educational ideals’. SS get round this by aligning the business model with really good educational idealism (I think (and hope)) – i.e. content, pedagogy, educational theory align really well.

    PS – A similar thing happens in Finland with their education system – teachers are taught and trained in ‘teaching’, not information and theory.

    An example of this failing might be the Building Energy course tried in Scotland (I think) aimed at the construction industry to train for the new regulations on energy efficiency. Now, as an architect I am actually interested in the theory and practice of this. But most professionals see it as another piece of paper that is required to be able to punt out reports that suggest you change your lightbulbs to low energy types. Sometimes the world is really that cynical, hence the course didn’t stand a chance when alternative ‘educators’ could do it in a 12 hour module which got the bit of paper and cost £x.

    The OU could easily host a whole range of small specific qualification based courses to easily get the cash in. But it only does this in a very few cases.

    So where is this line drawn? Do we ‘educate’ for qualifications or for ‘learning’? We seem to do both, but with caveates…

    Maybe a user centered business approach is no bad thing – students bring the target, we bring the pedagogy for it (and then some – the ‘some’ being the ‘Open’ part in original meaning).

    (Um, I think this might be heading in a predictable direction now, so I better stop).

  5. Most Universities don’t think they are selling anything. They are wrong – a cash transaction of fee for service, does occur, whether they like it or not.
    By volume,for most Universities, the bulk of their income comes from Undergraduates (directly, or via state subsidy, depending on the country).
    So the question becomes – why do students attend a University?
    Mainly it’s for life experience, to have a good time, and to get a degree that will help them make their way in the world.
    The OU, by it’s nature, isn’t aimed at undergrads aiming to have a fun time on campus, so that leaves it, basically, selling a qualification (or part thereof, and the knowledge and personal development therein) that helps the student make their way in the world.
    Most universities, I think, by failing to accept that they, in fact, selling something, do their students a disservice (thought explanded here:

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