When I was a student at Man Met, there were plenty of things that were just “there” that I never gave much thought to until I got elected as a student officer at the SU.
In some ways, half of the fun of getting up close to SU operations and university managers is understanding just how much thought, coordination and effort goes into making the little things happen for students on campus.
But while I learned a lot about everything from supervising a major building project to making a welcome week work, from the governance of a trading company to the strategies used to minimise student drop out, what I never really gave any thought to was posters.
The university student poster sale has been a tiny but important component of the student experience for decades. Two or three times a year, a small team of sellers magically appear on campus with racks and signage and thousands of posters that help students to fit in, display their personality and cover up stains and cracks.
What I didn’t know back then – but I know now I’m the company’s Head of B2C and Digital Trading – is that the operation started as a small UK business selling posters on campus and is now a hugely successful multinational organisation, with ten subsidiary companies around the world.
And while much of our business has transformed over the years with the growth of online sales, what hasn’t changed much is what students buy during Freshers’ Week.
Fixtures and fitting in
If there’s one thing that’s clear at this time of year, it’s that students are desperate to be like everyone else. We see it on our travels around the country’s campuses – the fashions are familiar, the catchphrases are common and we can tell you a tale about the way students use technology in a different way every year – but that change is almost always universal whether we’re in Canterbury or Keele.
Fundamentally, we see it in the posters that we sell. Students want to fit in.
You might be surprised to learn this – but the top ten has been pretty constant for as long as any of us can remember. Pulp Fiction, Gorillaz, Stone Roses, Star Wars variants and Chat Noir are all still up there. The Cannabis classics all still sell well. We’re even still selling that tennis player poster and the rude road signs one you’ll all remember – although we don’t know how those go down once pinned up.
We’re not convinced that most students have listened to Gorillaz or Stone Roses, and we doubt many have seen Pulp Fiction. What they will have seen is depictions of what a student room in an HMO or student house is supposed to look like – and the last thing they want to do is look out of place.
That need to belong feels even stronger this year. If I was still working at a university, regardless of the role I was in, I’d be doubling down on making people feel like they are welcome, supposed to be there and capable of coping with what’s to come.
Staring at their phones
That’s not to say that post-Covid, everyone is back with a bang. We’ve seen this happening slowly over the years, but the sheer number of students that we’ve seen this year spotting a poster they like and then buying it online on their phone right in front of us (often for double the price) is astonishing. We don’t think that’s about the tech as much as the social awkwardness and hesitancy that is palpable with this cohort. They’ll do anything to avoid talking to us!
If they’re like this with everyone else, that could all mean some drop out earlier than we’d like, and others try getting over it with drink or drugs. I’d be worried about both if I was still working at a university, and I’d be organising more “directly run” social activity than just hoping that clubs and societies, seminar groups or nightclubs will do all of that for us.
Not every student is like this, by the way. International students have always both bought more posters from us and a more diverse range at that. Chatting to them, that’s about both pride in their country (where we have a poster that matches) and having less that’s “theirs” when they arrive. The need to create a safe and personal home feels incredibly important to this group, a need that we never supported or thought about nearly enough when I worked at the SU.
We’ve also learned about getting international students to buy from us. Commercially, the right decision for us was to translate some of our signage so that students from some of the bigger recruitment markets know we’re there, offering something for them, and erasing their confusion about whether they’re allowed to browse, what the sale is for or how to pay.
These sound like tiny things but so much of HE seems to be about teaching those that are “different” how they can navigate a very traditional environment. Decoding it in hundreds of little ways isn’t about lowering standards, it’s about making students feel more comfortable and willing to take part in what’s on offer at university.
Fall back position
Things are very different later in the year. At the start only about 1 in 5 seem to be keen to show off their individuality – but by the time the clocks go back, sales of our hardy perennials drop off a cliff and shift towards the latest trends in music, fashion and social media. Once they feel confident that they belong, we think it becomes important for students to branch out, take a few risks and find a fresh set of friends.
If I was still working on campus, I wouldn’t be waiting until January to get a reFreshers fair off the ground, I’d be making sure that students are able to choose their own options and pathways for the second half of the term, and I’d be determined to give students the opportunity to create, perform, or exhibit within, alongside and separate from the curriculum.
By then, they are also starting to get into (and talk to us about) their side hustles, events and single issue campaigns – so I’d be making sure that support, funding and space for these kinds of activities reappears both before and after Christmas.
As well as all that stuff about students, there’s other insights I could share. Recruitment for us is tough right now – we’ve lost a lot of staff thanks to Brexit and our costs have increased. Inflation is on the up, and we wonder whether universities and SUs are ready for what looks like a prolonged employment crisis especially in roles that are filled by young and mobile staff. Instead of just endlessly re-advertising vacancies, we’re having to think hard about how we deliver – and so should universities and their SUs.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the chaos there often is on campus. We’ve had everything happen to us – “indoor” spaces without roofs, floods, fire alarms… we once were asked to share a space and assumed we’d be in with the plant pot guy you’ll all know, but we turned up and were sharing a space with dancers, a combo we doubt had been properly risk assessed. My favourite story is a double booking in a hall that slowly became a lecture theatre half way through the day – a process that got as far as the lecturer starting the lecture before someone spoke to us. We’re poster sellers, not aliens.
The student market is not a huge part of our work these days – and doesn’t make us a lot of money – but given the origins of the company and the contribution we think make to student life and belonging, it remains one of our favourite bits of the business. We probably know more about how students are changing – and how they’re staying the same – than most of your data people. We understand their behaviours, know about the mental health issues and see the trends and fashions very quickly. We’d be happy to share – so next time we’re on campus, get the kettle on, keep the price of next term’s booking reasonable and let’s talk.