Guardian investigation reveals growing ad budgets among lower and middle ranking institutions
Sam Hall and Sally Weale
Tue 2 Apr 2019 18.20 BST
A limited resource: universities are hiring marketing firms and billboards in increasingly competitive recruitment campaigns to attract undergraduates.
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 informationrequests shows universities spending hundreds of thousands of pounds on digital advertising and social media in a direct appeal to 18-year-olds, 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-olds, 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.
Many universities are facing financial pressures, with nearly one in four in deficit in England last year and warnings of redundancies. Brexit and the looming Augar review into higher education funding, with the possibility of a cut in tuition fees, is also adding to the uncertainty engulfing universities.
Nicola Dandridge, the chief executive of the Office for Students higher education sector regulator, said: “It’s for universities to decide how they allocate their resources and it is, of course, understandable that they will want to market their courses to students.”
In Scotland, which does not have the same higher education market – there is still a cap on student numbers and no tuition fees – universities are spending significantly less on advertising than most of their English counterparts. Glasgow Caledonian University spent just £47,504 and the University of Strathclyde spent £117,028, which amounts to £8.22 for every undergraduate enrolled.
Of the 42 universities that supplied figures to the Guardian, the lowest spending institutions in England were Durham (£70,570) and Exeter (£171,766), both of which benefit from strong reputations. Cambridge said it did not have a marketing department, but spent £183,232 on open days, prospectuses and films.
The responses reveal that competition to recruit students is particularly ferocious during clearing after A-level results have been published, when students who fail to meet the requirements of their original offers can find places at other universities.
Essex University paid £119,169 to the marketing company McCann and the student marketing platform Net Natives received £105,970 from Heriot-Watt to run their respective clearing campaigns. Heriot-Watt spent over £100,000 more on advertising during clearing than on its original undergraduate recruitment campaign.
The National Union of Students said: “Increased marketisation of education has created wasteful competition that benefits neither students nor the public.”
A spokesperson for Universities UK, which represents 136 higher education providers, said: “Recent government policy, including the Higher Education and Research Act, has had the intention of creating a more vibrant market and a focus on student choice, so it’s not surprising that we have seen changes in behaviour and different marketing strategies across the sector.”
Anglia Ruskin said its £1.19m spend included all marketing costs with a significant proportion spent on working with schools and colleges to increase social mobility.
“The  staff in our marketing team cover a variety of responsibilities including admissions, schools outreach, alumni engagement and managing our website. Only a small proportion of the team have a traditional ‘marketing’ role. Significantly more are employed helping to fulfil our important widening participation mission,” it said.
The University of Central Lancashire said the £3.4m was the total marketing spend on undergraduate, postgraduate and research student activity, in the UK and internationally, adding that it represented “only 1.5% of our total turnover