Universities are spending millions of pounds on marketing in a battle to recruit students as competition intensifies in the higher education sector, a Guardian investigation can reveal.
Data obtained from freedom of information requests shows universities spending hundreds of thousands of pounds on digital advertising and social media in a direct appeal to 18-year-old, as well as adverts on billboards, buses and the London underground.
The highest spending universities are those in the lower and middle ranks of the UK league tables, who invest huge sums to attract sufficient students to fill their courses and bring in vital income with their £9,250 annual tuition fees in an increasingly cut-throat recruitment climate.
Among the big spenders was the University of Central Lancashire with a total marketing spend of £3.4m for 2017-18. The University of the West of England’s annual marketing budget was £3m, Middlesex spent £2.6m and followed by Gloucestershire allocated £1.9m to its overall marketing spend.
Of the universities who broke down their marketing budgets to detail specifically their spend on recruiting new undergraduates, the highest spending institution was the University of East London, which invested more than £1.3m on marketing and advertising, not including expenditure on open days and publications.
Anglia Ruskin University was the next highest, spending just under £1.19m targeting prospective undergraduates in the UK, of which £515,000 went on advertising on search engines, £352,000 on social media and just £6,000 on print. The University of Bedfordshire spent £1.08m, which equates to £432 for every undergraduate enrolled.
The information obtained by the Guardian’s FoI revealed some universities employed large numbers of staff in their marketing teams. Anglia Ruskin said it employed 120 full-time equivalent members of staff; Warwick University, a member of the prestigious Russell group, said it employed 106 staff in a range of marketing roles across the institution.
The University and College Union, which represents higher education staff, accused universities of favouring style over substance. “It is clearly important that universities make potential students aware of the benefits of higher education,” said the union’s acting general secretary, Paul Cottrell, “but the spiralling growth in spending on marketing stands in direct contrast to the way the pay and conditions of those who deliver to students has been held down.
“Students pay record levels of fees, staff are not paid enough, yet millions are being spent on marketing as institutions appear to favour style over substance. This approach is at odds at what students actually say they want."
Many of the 134 universities that were approached refused to divulge financial information, citing commercial sensitivity.
In England, the lifting of the cap on the number of students universities can recruit, together with a demographic fall in the number of 18-year-old, has resulted in an aggressive new market in higher education. Higher-ranking universities are taking on students who would once have gone to mid and lower-ranking institutions.