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Combating the commercial narrative blog

Combating the commercial narrative



It’s time to tackle ‘value for money’, so what can universities do to combat the commercial narrative?


Value for money. It’s important to start with these three words so we can see them for what they are. For English institutions, they are arguably the product of policy changes, marketisation and (real or perceived) stakeholder expectations. These words do not reflect why we do what we do, and yet they have come to dominate the narrative of our sector.


Whilst many of the reasons why ‘value for money’ has become the expression du jour stem from influences beyond the sector, our response to it is critical. If we only talk about and respond to ‘value for money’ this is all people will ever hear. The low hum of white noise stuck on repeat. We need to change the conversation. We need to illuminate the different ways we contribute to people’s lives and society as a whole, beyond a customer-supplier relationship.


Over the last few months Wonkhe have produced an excellent selection of articles on the topic: we’ve talked about taking back the agenda, reminded ourselves of the benefits beyond what can be measured, and anticipated how the OfS will take forward conclusions from a report published in March.


All this commentary and more tells us what we already knew, that there’s value beyond money. The next, more challenging, part is to consider how we reframe the conversation we’re having with ourselves and our stakeholders, be they students, policy makers, funders, business partners or the public, to combat the commercial narrative.


Don’t let go of who you are


If you haven’t already done so, this is the moment to take a step back and reflect. We need to remind ourselves of what it is we’re here to do, and what those values are that ground us.


Try asking yourself these questions:

  • Where has my institution come from, and how does this relate to where we’re going?
  • What are our values and do these match with where we are now? Or is there a gap?
  • What is the personality and tone of my institution?
  • What are its habits and mannerisms?
  • And how do we communicate all these elements to our stakeholders?


Talk directly and honestly with the people that matter (internally and externally)


Universities wouldn’t exist without the creativity and dedication of everyone who works there. Nor would they exist without the fresh ideas, challenge and change brought about by students and society.


On the face of it these are two, quite different audiences, with different, and sometimes competing, priorities; however, the need to talk with authenticity and clarity is essential for both.


Consider the primary ways that your audiences hear from and about you. And consider the language you use; can it be understood? Does it reflect who and what your university stands for? Is it a universal language that resonates with everyone you connect with?


Taking advantage of tools and good practice can also be helpful. Integrated Reporting is one way in which universities can extend the way they talk about their social and economic value that goes beyond what students, or the government, might expect.


Critically, there is also a role for your current and future leaders to play in setting the direction and owning the narrative for their teams and as part of a wider institutional strategy. Your leaders are key message carriers and will inspire future generations to support your cause.


Acknowledge the metrics and the assessments that got you here, but make them part of your bigger picture, not the whole picture


Metrics give us an opportunity to highlight something we’re exceptional at and where we can become even stronger; but how do we articulate the value behind the metrics? And how do we do this in a way that is meaningful to the people it’s meant to appeal to?


Staying close to what your metrics mean for your institution, and constantly checking this against how it is positioned internally and externally, is important to ensure that their value shines through. This will be all the more powerful when you know and can use language that is meaningful for the people you are looking to inspire.


Move from sage to co-creator


How do we use the knowledge and wisdom we generate to become the architect of our own future?


As a sector we are rich in insight with a keen talent for analysis. Now is our opportunity to put this knowledge into action. Consider our students; they constantly drive change and are doing so at an accelerating pace. Yet, if we were to lower the drawbridge and invite them in as co-creators of their education, how might their perception of us, and their expectations of universities as mere suppliers, change?


Opening up this discussion is essential if we are to influence the current perception of value, particularly for both current and future students.


Change will not happen overnight. The dominant commercial narrative has had time to grow and tuck its feet under the table; but the point is this, there are things which we can do about it. We need to ask ourselves questions, reflect on how to connect with the people both within and beyond our institutions, we need to make room for message carriers, to seek out new and innovative tools, and to truly commit to finding ways to create our future alongside those that matter.


Louise Clifton pictureLouise Clifton is the Director of Marketing, Communications and Operations at Invisible Grail.

Over the last few months we’ve been absorbing and reflecting on how people within and beyond Higher Education have been interpreting ‘value for money’. This blog is intended to help create a practical starting point for people to unpick this sticky issue.


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Published Monday 30 July 2018


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