How universities can avoid another mis-selling scandal

There's a secret force on student choice that might not be as "authentic" as it looks. Eve Alcock follows the leads.

When it comes to commentary on the marketisation of higher education, I’ve read more articles than I can remember, heard umpteen SU and NUS election speeches on the issue and played my part in many national campaigns denouncing it.

And whilst there’s never ending supply of insightful analysis on the topic, there is one side effect of marketisation that has yet to appear centre stage, despite its sly prevalence – the rise of “influencers” and the way in which social media is impacting on student choice.

As we inch towards a tough clearing period, we should give the phenomenon some thought, and take steps now to avoid another scandal involving marketing.

The secret force on student choice

You don’t have to look very far to see something interesting happening to student choice hiding in plain sight. Typing “university” into youtube doesn’t bring up thumbnails of institutions’ whimsical promotional videos (sorry marketing teams), but countless vlogs of students, with vast followings. “UK on lockdown: forced to leave university (my last durham uni vlog)”, “10 THINGS I WISH I’D KNOWN BEFORE I STARTED UNIVERSITY…” and “Live Reaction to my First ESSAY MARK at UNIVERSITY (I cried…)” are all examples.

And one glance at the comments section will confirm that prospective students are watching the videos closely – to gather information about potential university choices, and assist them in their decision making. Those still convinced that a shiny TEF Gold sticker on the side of the university library will do the trick may need to reevaluate.

The impact of these informal “reviews” and insights into different institutions works both ways. If a university happens to have a current student with a large social media following, and said student has had a really positive experience at university, enjoys their course, makes friends easily, can afford to be part of societies and sports teams and lives in an “instagrammable” room because rent wasn’t an issue, then the university’s reputation will benefit.

But if said student has struggled to pay their rent, has had to pick up part time work to feed themselves, has experienced sexual harassment or assault on campus and can’t access mental health services because of 3 month wait times, the university’s reputation will be significantly damaged.

The influence of social media doesn’t stop at individual actors though. Online communities are another way that students are increasingly finding their information about higher education. Bronte King’s “Gals who Graduate” (“online support network for students & graduates”) facebook group has 12,000 members and hosts events such as careers webinars with university careers advisors, and even a virtual graduation for 100 students from the class of 2020.

Bronte herself has also appeared in sponsored content for London based estate agency Knight Frank advertising “student accommodation” in the capital. Whether that property is available at student prices is a different question.

On the face of it, Universities’ interactions with these platforms and channels is limited. You might occasionally see a university comment on a popular video to communicate key messages such as accommodation application dates to prospective students. But the interesting question is what might be happening behind closed doors.

Harnessing the force

We know that to cut through the slick marketing, students crave the “authenticity” of other students. And because university finances rely on student fees, the pressure on university marketing departments to portray their institution in the best light to aid recruitment is significant. As a result, universities are attempting to use this power of social media and “influencers” to their advantage, leading to an array of marketing practices that lack transparency and honesty in portraying student life to prospective students.

In the retail sector, we’ve seen how quickly corporate brands and companies jump at the chance to reach their influencer’s audiences on platforms like Youtube and Instagram, just like Bronte King’s content for Knight Frank. We also know, thanks to increasing press coverage, that sponsored #ads on social media platforms can be incredibly misleading. So much so, that the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) recently mandated much clear labelling of gifted, branded or sponsored content online to enable users to make more informed choices about whether or not to engage in or buy the advertised product.

And yet the higher education sector lacks similar ethical marketing guidelines and protocols for similar practices undertaken by universities.

Often, the same vloggers and influencers that upload content related to university life on their own channels appear as paid “student life bloggers” on university social media platforms – sometimes linking out to the students’ own channels. Either the students who naturally enjoy content creation were all seeking part-time work to support themselves at university and opted for jobs that played to their own strengths and interests, or the institutions employ targeted approaches to student blogger recruitment.

Either way, universities seem to be pretty aware of these students and the influence they hold. Their names or usernames have been known to be mentioned in university meetings during discussions about how to deploy information to current and prospective students.

The real kicker though, is that where students continue vlogging about their university on their own channel after producing paid content on the university’s channel, they often do not declare previous or current paid employment by their own institution. Yet CMA guidance is silent on how this should be handled. And sometimes, these videos filmed for university channels also get re-uploaded on students’ personal channels with no declaration of payment for its creation.

Given all paid content has to be signed off and approved by a university’s marketing department, questions start to arise about the transparency over what content gets published and when. For example, shortly after lockdown began and the moratorium on unconditional offers was rolled out across the sector, I began to see student blogs from high-tariff institutions titled “Why I didn’t accept my unconditional offer”. Call me a cynic, but I think it unlikely that a student, at that particular moment in time, was burning to write a blog about that particular topic in question without a suggestion or nudge somewhere along the way.

Similarly, there has also been a conspicuous pattern in the timing of content released by students’ unions and their institutions over the pandemic as recruitment fears have sky-rocketed. Where SUs have been visible and vocal in their criticisms of their institution’s approach to something – whether it be disabled students provision, or arrangements for online assessments – universities have released positively-framed student written blogs praising the institution’s response to the pandemic the following week in what appears to be an attempt to “reclaim the narrative”.

Even where individual students act as online ambassadors for universities – answering seemingly innocent questions from applicants on student life – the problem is clear. How many paid student ambassadors would publicly paint their provision in a bad light if they thought doing so would lose them that job?

“Authentic” student voice?

As this social media driven, influencer led and university commissioned student voice becomes the most visible to prospective and current students, what does this mean for the “authentic” student voice, traditionally provided by SUs?

As Gen-Z are increasingly primed to absorb information from peers or influencers on social media platforms, the information they’re getting is a very particular portrayal of university life. Increasingly it comes from students who get paid for their content which gets proofed and approved by university marketing teams, whose job it is to show the university in its best light.

This has a huge impact on student expectations of university life, which is bad enough in a normal year – but even more so in a Covid-19 socially distant world where actual provision will be worlds away from expectation. Where SUs might have given a nuanced, authentic and considered reflection of student life for prospective students dependent on their background and needs, university “influencer” marketing tactics assume that everyone will thrive always, even though we know that’s not true.

As Covid-19 poses threats to student numbers and university finances, institutions’ marketing strategies will increasingly rely on portraying positive individual student experiences as the singular student experience at their institution.

Whilst it might be smart, and indeed necessary in the market for universities to make the most of the influencing world to safeguard their recruitment and balance the books, the lack of guidance on ethical marketing practices or official CMA stances to provide transparency and context to the content they produce risks misleading students into accepting offers at institutions that will not and cannot cater to their specific preferences, needs and requirements.

To avoid a new “mis-selling” scandal, universities should collaborate with SUs now on a new code of ethics for university marketing, that positions students as suppliers of honest and objective peer information, advice and guidance – rather than paid-for positivity that students will eventually see through, and that the press will rip apart when it realises.

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