Could the commoditisation of higher education lead it inexorably towards brand failure

By Ben Ryder Smith

As featured in University Buisness by Ben Ryder-Smith

How is the transactional shift of universities affecting their brands?

Universities and their brands have shifted in recent years towards becoming metronomically transactional.

Nothing encapsulates this quite like the mayhem of the post-A level results clearing frenzy, which seems to get more feverish each year. 

Clearing is increasingly big business. Universities’ brand campaigns in respect of the annual scramble for places are geared specifically towards bums on seats. This year’s clearing resulted in more than 60,000 undergraduate placements finding courses.

That’s cash in the bank for the universities accepting fees, and in many cases will have additional financial benefits via housing and catering.

But it’s a short-term transactional benefit. Relying on clearing to fill the university coffers results in higher numbers of students being accepted onto courses below the initial asking requirements, which dilutes academic levels.

If those students then struggle to keep pace with the rigours of their chosen course, it increases the likelihood of dropouts, which is counterproductive for long-term stability.

It’s a worry, particularly when studied in context. One vice-chancellor anonymously predicted that five or six universities would run out of money over the next two years.


George Ritzer’s theory of ‘McDonaldization’ – transposed to higher education by Dennis Hayes and Robin Wynyard in The McDonaldization of Higher Education – posits that increasingly corporate models of running universities put too much emphasis on financial returns at the expense of education. 

The course becomes a product; the student becomes a customer. The customer, paying fees, expects a return on his or her investment. The degree becomes a means by which to secure a ‘good job’.

Yet a third of students earn less than £20,000 a year six months after graduation. It’s therefore vital that universities and their brands do not lose sight of the traditional goal of higher education – the pursuit of knowledge. 

The power of knowledge is transformative, and these are vision-driven organisations we are discussing. Shouldn’t they be selling vision rather than pandering to simple needs?

Just as universities take graduates on one of life’s most formative journeys, their brands and marketing efforts should address more than just immediate needs.

Risky business

Having a transactional brand that falls short of expectations is a risky business, especially considering we know the young adults of purpose-driven Generation Z expect more than a formula: degree = job = greater financial potential.

This is heightened in a world of increasing automation where the power of the human mind is a key factor in the job market.

Over the past 12 months, our research team carried out more than 50 focus groups with prospective students, parents, careers advisors and alumni, all with the aim of uncovering motivations behind university selection and the brands they would be attracted to.

The careers advisors we spoke with felt strongly that the universities that accepted increasing numbers via clearing were seeing their overall reputations or brands retreat as a result.

Opinions vs stats

Employability statistics remain important (interestingly, more so than ranking or prestige) to prospective students. However, most now view their reliability with a pinch of salt and some are sceptical of the transactional marketing campaigns and the barrage of numbers.

The opinions of insiders, those who know the cities and the universities, have become more trustworthy than the statistics.

When looking specifically at those who might not have top-end grades and may be considering the possibility of an apprenticeship, and a debt-free earn-while-you-learn approach, the transformational brand – as opposed to the transactional brand – is increasingly important.

In this context, each brand needs to help those in question to justify their decisions to take on the associated debt, because of the long-term transformational impact only a university degree and experience could provide.

We also found the government-stamped TEF certification that measures the quality of teaching, to be of increasing significance, which further places emphasis on higher education as a quality-driven service rather than an off-the-shelf commodity.

Are you ‘experience’?

The ‘experience’ is a key driver. Unsurprisingly, nightlife is important, too. With young people, generally speaking, moving away from home for the first time, they want an experience that will prepare them for adult life. 

Everyone has employability statistics, but those aren’t the main driver for students. Universities don’t just provide skills; they help develop ways of thinking that will stay with their graduates not just for their first job but every step of the way thereafter.

The reality is that a university’s brand should be both transactional and transformational. The inevitability of £50,000 of debt is an intimidating prospect for prospective graduates and universities need to project a level of reassurance.

But they mustn’t lose sight of the fact that they provide an invaluable platform for young people to develop knowledge and ways of thinking, all while realising their independence and bridging that difficult gap between school or college, the daunting world of work and real life as a whole.