Higher education establishments are operating in unprecedented times.
No one is standing still in the fast moving and highly competitive sector. If universities want to see the step change that will deliver new and raised ambitions, they need to be seen and perceived to be outperforming their peers.
As a leading brand consultancy within the higher education sector, we know what it takes to create a memorable brand that delivers on long-term growth strategies. Working with some of the world’s leading universities including NUI Galway, DCU and more recently Queen’s University, Belfast and Ulster University, we’ve seen first hand the struggles and issues which even the most well established education providers face in an uncertain market place.
The Global Challenge Ahead
The higher education sector is going through an undeniable period of change and challenge that is having huge ramifications on how universities differentiate their offering and tell the world who they are, how they are different and why it matters. Every university is facing up to financial uncertainty which is directly aligned with the upcoming review of funding and the inherent risk factor for all associated with Brexit. There is the cultural change taking place on every campus as students view themselves as savvy consumers looking for value for money and a return on their investment. In line with that is the the pressure to recruit international and postgraduate students to build sustainable income against a backdrop that shows the UK is experiencing a downward trend in international standings. This is forcing universities into uncharted territory as they try to navigate the best approach to making sure their brand can compete on a global stage.
Universities in the UK are facing the same pain points and challenges across the board which are making it more and more difficult to differentiate on a national and global stage.
The Political Climate
The current political climate and ongoing uncertainty around Brexit leads to a number of issues that are directly affecting how universities can plan for the future. The principle of free movement affects students and staff alike; the concern of losing EU funding and pan European programmes; the fact that there will almost certainly be less European students applying for UK universities as they look to a more stable environment to carry on their studies, which in turn will directly affect the cultural richness found in our universities.
Reputation is a key factor for every university and whilst its difficult to categorise every university with the same risk to reputation, the fact that the UK has lost its second-place position in the world rankings to Japan is a huge dent in the collective reputation of our country’s higher education. However, its not only Japan that is punching above its weight. Chinese universities are making rapid improvements in global reputation and New Zealand, Canada and Australia are increasing their intake with students who have been put off with the shifting political climate in the UK and the United States.
The fee model has disrupted how universities view student recruitment. There is now a greater emphasis on attracting international students and postgraduate students to help build sustainable income. This in itself means universities are globalising their thinking and trying harder to differentiate their offering in a highly competitive marketplace that is also increasingly homogeneous.
Brexit again is raising concerns with academic institutions regarding access to EU funding. Approximately £500 million per year goes directly to universities, so replacing that or finding other sustainable resources of research funding is a looming challenge. This will lead to serious uncertainty over who will provide research funding, as well as increased competition for whatever precious budget there is.
Students as Consumers
The introduction and ongoing increases in student fees have created a changed mindset with parents and students who now have to seriously consider how to fund a university degree. Students are demanding as much value as possible out of their studies. This means universities must demonstrate their ability to provide the facilities, teaching, research ability and technology that not only enriches their student experience, but delivers a worthwhile degree that leads to relevant employment.
These challenges are likely to persist over the coming years and may become further compounded by a myriad of external influencing factors. Like all successful organisations, universities who continue to evolve and place brand at the core of their communications are likely to be the ones who succeed and thrive in a complex and competitive environment.