We spend our lives thinking about university marketing, so it’s quite odd being with my 17-year-old twins looking at university open days, and having to go into parent mode. They want to do “medicine and history, or possibly law, or may be biosciences, or perhaps Chemistry, Mum”. Okay, so that’s a lot of subjects across two daughters. I make a list of places they are interested in, look up the open days, and have a spreadsheet of 20 universities. Most are on work days, so I look at where I’m visiting clients, and see what we can do together.
Exeter is first up. The day is beautiful, the campus is looking great. Students in yellow t-shirts are everywhere, and so helpful. Food vans and a jazz band in the central campus playing the Dr Who theme add a lift to everyone’s mood. One twin walks over to the medical campus, and other explores the History and Law lectures. They like the atmosphere, and the town meets with their approval. The History lecturer is boring, however, and the medical accommodation is a bit disappointing. In consultant mode, I notice the interested students are also distinctly white and sound rather middle class, and I know Exeter is doing a lot more to be diverse, but the region is white and quite middle class so it’s not easy.
Next we go to Edinburgh. Ticket prices are mounting up now. Nearly £150 for the trains for three of us, then nearly £200 for one shared room in Edinburgh. It’s of course all very Scottish and the young medical student says with glee how cheap it all is for Scottish students – yes because of us English tax payers, I’m thinking between gritted teeth! It’s hard to beat Edinburgh for the architecture, the views, and the elegance. The History lecture I sit in is informative and mentions all the reputation assets, but it doesn’t make the subject interesting. Medicine does a better job of conveying the highs of the subject – no mention of the long hours of course. The room is full of girls. Boys clearly are not into medicine. I’m told this was the same at Exeter. Later we look at accommodation. Pollock Halls (bad name for effectively the student village?) is a schlep from George Square but there’s a good bus service from the medical campus. The grounds are beautiful, but viewing the accommodation involves waiting in a line of parents and offspring for 20 minutes before your chance to peer at a modest room with a bed and small desk! There are roadworks everywhere around the university so it’s in renovation mode, and finding a meal at night is nigh on impossible as the drunken stag and hen parties and tourists are filling every eaterie. This puts one twin off, but the other is delighted with the buzz.
Next week one twin goes to Imperial on her own. She can’t get into the medical talks because they are all full. The accommodation is twice the price of Edinburgh and half the size. She decides London isn’t for her.
The other twin does Leeds on her own. Loves it – great shops, campus near the station, good lectures. That’s about all I get out of her.
Finally, it’s Newcastle University. We arrive by train, and are greeted by various students from Northumbria trying to hijack us with huge black branded hand gloves. Smart move! We are also accosted by independent accommodation agencies. Go away! The food on campus is 16 different ways of doing chips and burgers. Funny that when Newcastle is leading the way with health and diabetes research! The chips are great though! I manage to sneak into one of their cool pods to do a work Skype and feel like a student as parents and kids look at me working in my goldfish bowl! Joining up with the girls, the accommodation is the biggest, best and cheapest they have seen. Funny they are so aware of price! The Law lecture also is the first I’ve sat in where the lecturer actually gives a glimpse of what the subject would be like to study, sharing some case studies with us. She is full of energy. I suddenly want to do law. We walk down to the river and the girls conclude this is a very cool university, not as pretty as Edinburgh, but cheaper, and with a good vibe.
No doubt autumn will add a few more to the list, and the decisions will continue. Of course, whether they get the grades to get in, is another matter. But we aren’t thinking about that yet.
So conclusions from a marketing perspective? The atmosphere of the whole place has huge impact, and the university is definitely selling the city as well as the campus. Of those I witnessed, Exeter did this the best with a carnival atmosphere and great food. Newcastle managed to have students leading us right from the station up to the university, but they need to be in front of the Northumbria glove wavers as you get off the train! June is a great month for open days. The student helpers are amazing, although I would have made them wear t-shirts with some relevant branded messages like TEF gold at Newcastle and Exeter. Edinburgh probably can’t do much about the roadworks and the drunk tourists, but it could rethink its viewing of student bedrooms. But the biggest lesson is that the academics need to be more switched on and convey the subject rather than simply list what they teach. If they don’t get that right, the applicants’ interest is likely to be lost.