Universities lost in marketing

Are you embarrassed about using marketing to achieve your objectives? We see this embarrassment in many students in our Executive Education programmes for the non-profit, healthcare and professional-services sectors. They know marketing is useful but prefer not to be seen doing it. The same thing happens with university education: do we have students, participants, users, consumers or clients?

I want to share three examples that illustrate this anxiety: 1) One business school bragged in its advertisements that it had “participants”, not students. 2) After the University of Málaga, a public school, explored a private sponsorship agreement to cover the needs of students with limited resources, it was accused of considering an outrageous, Francoist proposition. 3) The director of a leading university who urged his organisation to adopt a stronger market orientation was described as pushing “aggressive sales”. All three examples reflect the debate over how marketing should be applied to university education: value, stakeholders, market or sales orientation.

Researchers (Redding, Zell)have analysed the key parameters: Who is the decision-maker in the education process (public sector, parents, companies, users or faculty members)? What is the role of students in the service, in the evaluation process and in satisfaction surveys? How are educational and, later, career goals achieved?

We want to shed some light on this debate by making a couple of points. Students are clients (individuals for whom professional services are rendered), not customers (a clearly distinct concept). Furthermore, university education is a service with a high degree of professionalism, a strict code of ethics and self-regulation, wherein the rights and obligations of both parties are clearly established in a relationship based on trust, interdependence, active client participation and a high degree of mutual respect. The only valid alternative to this view is that university education is a product or a cash cow.

Shapiro memorably defined the complexity of marketing thusly: “What the hell is market-oriented?” Now we know that this process is poorly understood not just by society, but also by some of the business schools that teach it.

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