A Level students receiving their results this year had a very different experience to what students before the increase in fees experienced. Universities bent over backwards to promote their unique ‘student experience’ and did everything they could to make students, who are paying up to £9000/year to study there, feel that they were truly ‘valued’ as more than just cash-cows. In Birmingham, all prospective students received a bizarre personalised video telling them how thrilled everyone was that they were coming to study here, and the University’s PR team made heavy use of the #hellobrum hashtag on twitter.
Former Guild President David Franklin takes the credit for creating the #hellobrum “viral marketing campaign” , where “applicants, staff and alumni” use the hashtag to say why they chose the University of Birmingham in particular . The University even went as far as to provide a speech-bubble template which could be printed out and posed with in pictures. This virtual campaign was matched by a more usual physical presence, with posters displaying the words ‘#hellobrum’ appearing around the country, at no doubt a considerable cost, although the University refuses to declare how much of our money it spends on advertising each year.
#hellobrum was a trending topic in the UK on twitter , and thus successful in one sense, but what does this actually mean or achieve? Only that people are talking about the University. It is possible, on one level, to compare the publicity-hungry University to the celebrities for whom publicity is the means by which they earn their living. This comparison might seem ridiculous at first, but there is a truth in it – the changes to the way our universities are funded means that they now compete with each other for students; the (rather tired) idea being that competition breeds improvement and innovation. In the eyes of management, more publicity means more students, which means more secure funding.
The intense competition for students reached its zenith this year when a writer for a satirical website wrote a joke tweet about his A Level results and quickly attracted the pathetic, desperate attention of two universities who rushed to offer him a place .
Indeed, although Birmingham’s cringe-worthy attempts to make prospective students feel valued as more than just cash-cows attracted the praise of self-proclaimed ‘social media guru’ types , other universities also got in on the act, including Essex University’s Essex Manifesto, reportedly “full of big statements, purpose and vision, encouraging the ‘bold’ and the ‘brave’, the ‘rebels with a cause’, to sit up and take notice,” among other trite corporate clichés .
The fact that this trend is visible nationwide, and not just the result of our own University’s corporate management, suggests that it is only one symptom of a much wider issue causing problems across the entire national higher education system – the marketisation of our universities.
Marketisation forces universities to put financial profit above their traditional focus – what they do best – which is creating and spreading knowledge through research and teaching, and providing a space for students to learn to examine the world critically. None of the things discussed above further this goal, but individual universities have little choice but to do them if they want to survive in a corporate environment, created and pushed by the government, where competition and profit rule.
The need to compete leads to universities not only failing to do what they do best, but also leads to massive wastes of money on advertising, as seen above, which could be much better spent elsewhere. At Birmingham, it could be used to provide extra funding to help disadvantaged groups in their studies; increase staff wages, which has been a particularly big issue at Birmingham; and keep open world-renowned centres of excellent research like the Centre for Cultural Studies, associated with Stuart Hall, or the IAA, both of which, despite very strong protests, were axed by the University due to its focus on maximisation of profitability and employment prospects.
The solution to this national problem, then, is straightforward – we need a national response, through continued political organisation on our campuses, building links with staff and students across the country, to force the government and complicit members of management to return control of our universities to the people who work and learn in them.