Monday, March 07, 2005

President's Column - It Makes You Think

A few years back I was sitting in a movie theatre, about to watch the latest Hollywood release. As always, they started off with a number of trailers for up-coming movies, followed by a few television commercials. The first commercial was the Coke ad filmed at the beach, boarding down a ski ramp made of the frostings from a freezer. Despite being a commercial, the quadraphonic sound (or whatever they call it) made Neasin Mystik sound great.

Unfortunately, it didn’t do as much credit for the next advertisement. This one started off with a black and white silhouette of a rather plump woman, and a dollar value beside her. As the women lost weight, the dollar value went up.

What on earth could this be advertising?, I thought. A plastic surgeon? A local brothel? Recruiting the Singapore Girl? No, those ideas were miles too logical – it was a commercial for the fine institution that is the Victoria University of Wellington.

I may not have a degree in marketing, but even I can tell you that the campaign is misguided and vague. It says very little about what is available to study at Victoria. It says absolutely nothing about life at Victoria. And it says nothing about the academic standards at Victoria (except, perhaps, the impression that, like the commercials, Victoria University is somewhat simple).

It is also exceptionally expensive. According to AC Neilson figures (released by the New Zealand University Students’ Association last week) television advertising in 2004 cost Victoria University some $364,000. Out of a total university budget of over $200 million, that’s not a hell of a lot, really but it breaks down to $24 per full time student, $242 per fulltime staff member, $7000 per week, or just under $1000 per day. This is out of a total marketing budget of $895,000. (I wonder if a better marketing strategy would be to do away with television advertising, and instead simply give each student a cheque for $24? That’s 4 jugs of beer at Eastside…).

It makes you think, doesn’t it? Why does the university – a public institution - have to market itself in order to attract students? Why are New Zealand universities forced to operate within a market environment?

The answer to this is the same as if you are taking a 200-level law paper, and asking why you have to sit in the isle – the university is funded by the government on a bums-on-seats basis. The more students they attract, the more funding they get, the bigger their surplus is, and the better the university looks as a commercial enterprise. This model pegs institutions against institutions, faculties against faculties, and courses against courses in order to attract the greatest number of students, and, subsequently, the greatest amount of funding (hence the massive push by the School of Information Management for students to enroll in INFO 101 – which I ranted about a few weeks ago).

There is significant research to show that this advertising doesn’t actually work. The NZUSA Income and Expenditure Survey 2004 states that only 6% of students regard advertising as a source of information when choosing where to study. More important sources of information are course advice, school advisors, and friends and family.

Why should you care about this? Well, becuase it's your money they're spending. In 2004, tuition fees went up by 3%, and advertising expenditure went up 33%. What that means is that the money you spend in good faith - for the library, for computing services, for quality lecturers, for all of the resources to help you get the best education possible - is instead being spent on an inefficient advertising campaign.
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