Today we look at how education has become a competitive business: the institutions that will thrive are those that take a commercial approach to communications.
A generation ago, a PR professional who specialised in the education sector wouldn’t have seen much action in the UK. Today, organisations from colleges and universities to awarding bodies and tech providers all recognise the need for a strategic approach to both their internal and external communications.
Here are some examples of why education is such big business for communications experts today.
Colleges and universities face many challenges, predominantly driven by funding cuts. The ones that thrive are the ones that are rising to meet this new era of competitiveness: they know how to influence the way they’re perceived, what their offer to students is, what their unique selling points are. Today’s best institutions recognise students as stakeholders, courses as products and other institutions as competitors.
Communications professionals in this sector need to start with the internal requirement. They have to influence large numbers of educators, many of whom consider themselves public servants, to start adopting some private sector thinking: what new income streams can we identify? What is our offering to potential students? How can we engage better with employers and the community?
The external communications imperative is then to promote the institution’s brand and its selling points: the areas of expertise that make it stand out from the rest.
In the wake of tuition fees and public funding cuts, universities and colleges need not only to market themselves as a destination, but also the prospects beyond.
Meanwhile, in the private sector, awarding bodies face challenges of their own. The big ones, such as the ones that deliver GCSEs and A-Levels, are now commercial businesses, and no longer the “exam boards” that some newspapers still call them.
This means that they too can no longer afford to think like civil servants. They currently have to compete school by school, college by college, to be chosen above their competitors – and proposed Government reforms promise to move to an even more competitive, all-or-nothing model where contracts to deliver exams subject by subject are awarded directly at a nationwide level.
Awarding bodies too, therefore, have recognised the need for a professional approach to communications. A “press office” function handling enquiries and putting out press releases is no longer enough. Reputation is everything: they need to position themselves as having the best teacher support, the most accurate grading, the best learning resources, the best technology and so on.
No wonder the demand for PR professionals in the education world is currently so high.