A US Senate investigation in 2012 into higher education company Apollo Group, which owns the University of Phoenix, found that 60 per cent of Appollo's student dropped out within two years and that the company spent twice as much on marketing to new students than it did on teaching. The students had been attracted by the marketing but repelled by the reality.
Things are no way near as bad as this in the UK, but there are worrying signs that we're moving in that direction. Since 2010 and the effective creation of the student as a consumer, public relations and marketing departments have become vastly more important in British universities. These are the people tasked with selling the universities' "image" to potential students, recruiting them and therefore securing their tuition fees. Institutional prestige, graduate prospects and "student experience" – a vague management term roughly equating to customer satisfaction – are the new buzz words in universities.
Universities have always been a bit competitive in terms of prestige, certainly, but now reputations and institutional histories are being packaged up and sold to customers in prospectuses and adverts, the way the "original fittings" of a house might be sold by an estate agent. The question is: how much of this is just marketing hype?
At University College London (UCL) last week, existing students tried to disrupt an open day aimed at new students and their parents. They were there to "challenge the narrative" UCL was trying to market to potential students; loudly and publicly questioning both UCL's claims about "student experience" – one that they thought it was a bit shit actually – but also the institutional history. The college (which I was an undergraduate at until last year) is often at pains to point out its radical, liberal history. Activists were pointing out that it in some respects, the present doesn't live up to the past.
One group, UCL "cut the rent" – holding riot shields that look like tower blocks – said that UCL's promotion of "student experience" was pure hypocrisy. Capitalising on their central London location, UCL – the activists say – advertise accommodation to potential students that does not live up to even basic standards. "To live in London", the UCL accommodation prospectus reads, "is to experience one of the great cities of the world. Students at UCL benefit from our location in the centre of the capital".
"Although it is a fact that studying in London can be more expensive than in some other parts of the UK, the true picture is often exaggerated", the prospectus adds.
And yet, UCL have year-on-year been fleecing their students out of more and more money for rent. When I was a fresher at UCL five years ago, my halls on Charlotte Street in central London cost £110 a week; this year the same room costs £187. Figures that I've seen show that year on year since the turn of the millennium, UCL has gradually been increasing the amount of money it makes from its halls of residence. In 2014 UCL a net profit for accommodation of around £18 million. In 2010, this profit was £11.1 million; In 2005 it was £8.5 million; in 2000 it was £1.6 million. Just to be clear: this is the money UCL is making from charging its own student extortionate rents to live in "appalling" conditions in sometimes cockroach infested halls.
As well as "student experience", institutional histories are increasingly important ways that universities try to distinguish and sell themselves to undergraduates. UCL was founded in 1826 "to open up university education in England to those who had been excluded from it." It was the first university to admit women in 1878 and has a number of other liberal accolades under its belt.
Activists from a campaign group called "Why is my curriculum white?" have been trying to challenge this view, pointing out that UCL also has a controversial history in the development of eugenics. Activists at the open day put on white face masks to complain that black lecturer Dr Nathaniel Coleman (he strikes his name out because it was given to his ancestors by slave owners), who'd worked in challenging UCL's liberal image of itself, was recently dismissed from his job.
Coleman spearheaded a campaign at UCL asking why more professors in the UK weren't black, which UCL readily jumped on board with and "boasted about", Hajera Begum, the student union Black and Minority Ethnic officer told me. Coleman was "key in bringing up UCL's past", Hajera said. Activists think he was dismissed because he was critical of the university. The university deny this and say that they merely did not extend Coleman's contract because they were not ready to offer the MA programme he was proposing.
Fossil Free UK activists were also present on Friday, protesting against the college's multi-million pound investment in fossil fuel companies. UCL has £21 million currently invested in fossil fuel companies like Shell and BP, activists said. The university also has research institutes funded by mining companies. The ironically named UCL Institute for Sustainable Research is funded entirely by BHP Billiton, the world's largest mining company; UCL's institute for ethics and law is also funded by Shell – both are blatant exercises in greenwashing, activists say – "you couldn't make this shit up", Beth Parkin, a UCL student told me.
"They have divested before – they've taken a moral stand on things before [for instance Arms and tobacco companies]... but the action isn't being taken quick enough especially with the climate crisis", Beth said.
On the open day, this allied anti-bastard squad marched around the campus, letting off smoke flares and handing out leaflets to crowds of wide-eyed, post-A Level 17-year-olds. People sitting on the different stalls looked awkwardly on.
Most open day attendees looked pleasantly surprised being faced with the protestors – I guess this spectacle is kind of more fun the tedious glossy prospectuses and grandiose talks about "Your Future" normally given at these sorts of events. The only complaint I heard all day was from existing UCL students who were graduating, trying to get a photo of themselves in robes and a mortar board in front of the main building: "we paid for this view", one of them indignantly said whilst protestors draped the portico in a banner. The university, perhaps aware that rowdy protest could even furnish their image as a forum for radical ideas, took a relatively hands-off approach.
Open days are one of the main marketing exercises universities deploy in trying to recruit undergraduates – making them the perfect target for disgruntled students. In 2013, Warwick students targeted open days to "protect the public university" and in 2010, Birmingham University even had to cancel open days over tuition fee protests.
Now branded customers, what students are being sold is all the time worth less and less. Student life is becoming increasingly incongruous with the images and promises universities use to recruit students: the crushing realities of huge tuition fees, expensive living costs and limited job prospects couldn't jar more with the glossy and unblemished images universities like to show to prospective students.
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