Marketing Excommunication

An article in today’s (24 Jan 08) THE reopens the ‘are students customers?’ debate with some interesting points:

The notion of students as “customers” has been banned at Liverpool Hope University as it and other church-based institutions lead a fightback in favour of a more rounded approach to higher education.
Gerald Pillay, the vice-chancellor, said: “Students should not be treated as customers but as part of scholarly communities.”
The phrase “customer service” implied that universities were caring for students for financial reasons rather than out of a moral duty to do so, he added. “We place distinctive emphasis on the individual.”

I admire the brio of the ‘church-based institutions’ in staking a claim to this particular piece of moral high ground, deftly implying that institutions without an explicit Christian basis are less likely to recognise moral duties, value individuals, or endeavour to foster scholarly community. The ‘customer’ argument is a good platform for this as it is such a reliable hackle-raiser. This semantic issue was discussed here at length last year. It’s a debate that does need to be reopened (even in a non-Church-based university.)

For what it’s worth, I’ve come to the view that the primary message should be about students as partners in their learning, and members of an academic community. However it has to be acknowledged that higher education needs to demonstrably meet the needs of students (and their funders), and that these are free agents who can choose not to engage. It is therefore necessary to positively influence the experience they have, in a managed way, including communicating the benefits of participating in the academic community. The relationship resembles the customer role in some limited but important ways, so banning the notion (if indeed notions can be banned) and launching a ‘fightback’ is not useful.

Back to the article. Professor Pillay also makes an interesting point about marketing: “The Christian tradition is something that is part of the fabric of an institution and should be obvious in its graduates. Collective memory is the best form of marketing” (italics mine.) This must be true (though it’s a bit like saying ‘results are the best form of experiment’). It is actually quite exciting to consider the kind of collective memory (or impact, or perception) that is being created by the graduates of the mass higher education system as it has evolved over the past decade or so – as unprecedented as a never-before-dreamed dream. Whatever that emerging memory is, it guess it’s as diverse and fluid as the HE system we now inhabit.

‘Won’t you please, please help me’

‘Help’ is a widely-offered commodity these days – there’s usually a little button offering ‘Help’ on the screen of your device of choice; companies offer help lines and help desks. Some kind of ‘help’ function has become a must-have accessory for many organisations, with ‘Customer Care’ being a box everyone needs to tick. But the quality of the aid and assistance actually offered varies considerably…

Yesterday I spent some time working on the Student Information Centre Helpdesk at Edge Hill, as part of a ‘Back to the Floor’ day organised by HR. It was the busiest and least caffeinated I’ve been for a long time… the volume and diversity of enquiries kept me on the go without let up for the whole period. I was impressed and surprised by a number of things:
– the complexity and scale of information that needs to be immediately available from the desk
– the huge range of services deployed to support students
– the immediate willingness of staff around the University to drop what they’re doing to help sort out a student’s problem
– the Kafka-like world of student finance, and the effort involved by Universities and the students themselves in making it work.

The Student Information Officer did a great job of mentoring me whilst (inevitably) responding to a lot of the questions after I had blanched in fear, dropped the papers on the floor, proffered the wrong form and so on. But I now know what an EMC form is and the deadline for a Module Change Request.

At Edge Hill, at least, the ‘Help’ on offer is real and (now that I’ve left the proper people to get on with it) professionally delivered.

Capital of Culture – NOW I get it…

Whilst monitoring mentions of Edge Hill University in the blogosphere, this piece arrived on my desktop – a warts-and-all account of working on a low-budget independent film in Liverpool, written by world traveler John Parker. For John, a mature guy working as a runner on a film (which sounds simultaneously grueling and rewarding, ‘out of bed at ungodly hours, and stand in a muddy scrap yard taking orders and making tea’) is part of his personal reinvention, paralleling that of the city…

Outsiders have to be able to look past the shining new towers, the gleaming shopping malls, the resplendent – almost gum free – pavements and see what beats underneath. Every city in the world has glittering temples dedicated to the God of shopping. They are only the outward symbols of new life. Birmingham, Newcastle and Bristol also have fine industrial heritages, first class art galleries, outstanding theatres and orchestra’s. So what is it that makes Liverpool different?… It can only be the people.

And the EHU connection? Film Production students were working on the film too, getting their hands dirty, living on nerves for a while, angling their way into the industry…

John’s post is raw, honest and poetic. And after all the big launches and corporate presentations its the first time I’ve actually felt what Capital of Culture might mean, how ‘even in the old badlands, lying in the shadow of the bright World Heritage lights, there are seeds of optimism.’

Silence of THE Universities

When I wrote about the relaunched Times Higher last week, I never imagined we’d be on the cover of the next issue, albeit in butterfly form:


Images like this always remind me of ‘the Silence of the Lambs’, not because of Hannibal Lecter’s considerable academic achievements (he could have written an interesting ‘Don’s Diary’ for the THES two or three relaunches ago), but because of the iconic image from the movie poster:


Leaving aside the inherent creepiness of static lepidoptera, it is interesting that Edge Hill forms part of a subset of institutions chosen to represent the diversity of universities.

Back to the publication itself, barely emerged from its own chrysalis, I’m still not sure what to call it when referring to it out loud. Saying ‘The Times Higher Education Supplement’ always sounded somewhat portentous, like referring to ‘The Year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Seven’. ‘The Higher’ was sayable, as was ‘the THES’ (rhymes with Tess) or ‘the tee aitch ee ess’. Somehow I can’t imagine asking in the office if anyone’s see the ‘tee aitch ee’, and if I said ‘the THE’ there would be the danger that Chris would hand me a CD.


The Times Higher Education Supplement has a spiffy new look:


and has become a magazine. It has many plus points, including sharper, colour photography and clear typography and layout. However I think something has been lost in the translation – browsability. One of the nice things about traditional newspaper layouts is the way one’s eye roams the pages, finding stories by serendipity. In the new mag-like Higher (which surely won’t be referred to as ‘the’) most stories fill whole pages or spreads, so that one either reads a story or moves on. It doesn’t invite one to linger or follow links (existent or not) between the various articles and images.

There’s even an index on the back cover, enabling one to zero in on a mention of a particular institution without wasting eye-power on anything else along the way… that will save a few nanoseconds of the working day.

A business-like read.

(PS: I am not Jamie Targett.)