Sunday, October 31, 2010

Advertising universities

In recent years more and more universities have taken to advertising themselves, ranging from the subtle such as railway station signs that tell us the suburb or town is "the home of the University of X" to the more in your face posters and billboards. I was a little taken aback the other week to discover a billboard for one university lurking under a bridge in Limehouse. You have to give the institution marks for ambition, if not quite for placing (the road under the bridge has been severed and although there's a nearby main road the board was against the traffic flow).

But however wild it may seem at the moment it's not yet reached the heights of some past institutions. Back in the days when I collected US comics I'd often come across 1960s & 1970s issues that contained adverts for the grandfather of aggressively marketed universities - LaSalle Extension University.

La Salle was a distance learning institutions founded in 1908 and lasted until 1982. More details about its rise and fall can be found at Boing Boing: LaSalle Extension University, snail-mail generations' University of Phoenix; suffice it to say it's the adverts that stand out to me the most.

Perhaps the most famous are the "Look who's smiling now!" set. These regularly appeared in magazines and the like in the post war period, telling of the success of one of the LaSalle graduates. The photograph might change with the ages but the message remained the same - here was a way to advance one's self through signing up to the university. The adverts appeared in many places, including those that even today you wouldn't expect to find universities advertising, such as comics. (That LaSalle advertised in comics is amazing in itself but it indicates one of two things. Either they were well ahead of almost every other advertiser in realising that even then comics were not just read by children but also by potential respondents. Or else they were trying to advertise to children to tell their parents. Given the tone of the adverts I'd incline towards the former as LaSalle were frequently ahead of the game.) LaSalle advertised elsewhere, even on matchboxes!

LaSalle also run some highly targeted adverts. To the right is one from a 1914 edition of the International Socialist Review. It's nicely targeted piece that knows the precise audience reading it and pitches explicitly to it. I find it hard to imagine the Open University ever running an advert like this!

Do adverts like this mean that LaSalle was an inherently left-wing institution? I doubt it. The next advert is not exactly left-wing after all!

This time the target is not the potential student themselves but rather bosses, telling them that the best way to deflect requests for wage increases was to direct their employees to LaSalle. It's a nice subtle trick, not dissimilar to adverts today that are designed to appeal to children to make them suggest the product to their parents.

Of course there were conventional pieces as well, such as this one advertising the university's home study law programme. This was the university's most popular programme but also the one that was ultimate LaSalle's downfall, as no state would accept a home study law programme as sufficient for qualifying to practice law. The Federal Trade Commission brought several actions and finally in 1980 LaSalle ended the degree before the university finally folded in 1982.

Still it left a legacy through its many graduates. As with many other distance learning institutions it did a lot to make university education accessible across society and in the era of segregation LaSalle provided a route to advancement for those to whom many conventional institutions' doors were closed. And the aggressive marketing practices have been picked up by other institutions around the world in an era where competition is ever fiercer.

You can see more adverts on Flickr at LaSalle Extension University ads.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Extreme rhetoric

In recent years the language of politics has been getting ever more overblown but of late it's reached rather worrying levels. Today it sinks to a new low with this, courtesy of Polly Toynbee:
(Hattip to ConservativeHome: Tories want "final solution" for the poor says Guardian's Polly Toynbee)

Has Toynbee lost the plot? Doesn't she realise just how offensive the use of such language as "final solution" is?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

London Mayoral selection - an asteroid in the works

Paul Waugh, Deputy Political Editor of the Evening Standard, has reported the following on Twitter:

Lib Dems suspend their London mayoral selection for a year..cos not enough approved candidates. Boris n Ken must be pleased
Roughly translated:

No credible "stop Lembit" candidate has come forward and the Liberal Democrats are scared he'll get the nomination
It's also a blow for Duwayne Brooks, a councillor in Lewisham who has emerged as the only other name in contention for the nomination. I guess he's just not big enough to be trusted to stop Lembit Öpik.

So the Liberal Democrat leadership has now got an extra year to sort this out - could they possibly be hoping that by then there will be a former minister in contention?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

I still believe in free education

Yes in my heart of heart I still believe that charging for undergraduate degrees is wrong. I still wish it was free for all, allowing the opportunity for anyone who wishes to advance themselves through hard work and application. I don't believe markets in education work because of the special factors (mainly the one-off choice with little scope to rechoose and the "buy-before-you-try" position).

And over the years I've put that belief into action. I've marched against fees many times. Within my party I've argued for the scrapping of fees, before, during and after the time when we held that policy (and been told by some children that I should join another party; invariably they were hardliners from the so-called Conservative Way Forward).

So it's with a heavy heart that I receive the Browne Review. And it's not just the review. One of the heaviest facts to bear is that university fees of one form or another have been with us for thirteen years now. Every year that passes makes it that much harder to abolish them altogether.

And the economic circumstances make it very hard to embark on new expenditure ventures at the present time, even if some sensible moves are made like finally consigning the 50% target to the dustbin of history. The 2005 proposal of curbing expansion and using the money saved to axe fees is simply not viable now. Invariably some form of contribution from the students is a pill that has to be swallowed.

So it's a question of how and when to obtain that contribution. Paying huge amounts up front is nonsensical. Paying afterwards, when the ex-student is earning sufficient, is about the only way. And the Browne Review recommends raising the earnings threshold before repayment begins to £21,000. Is that so bad a thing to accept?

In such a situation it's ever harder to get worked up about the precise level of fees charged or if the amount will be variable. They will not be paid up front. And the Browne Review is also recommending increasing grants to poorer students.

If the message can be got forward that nobody will have to pay until they are earning significant amounts then maybe it can work.

But I'll still dream the dream and hope that one day we can return to free education when the time is right...

The student vote - a myth?

With Lord Browne of Madingley's review on Higher Education funding being published today there will invariably be a lot of speculation about the political consequences, especially for MPs with universities and a large number of students in their constituencies. There will be endless talk about the potential impact of the student vote in the next general election.

But all too often the "student vote" is massively overrated and fails to materialise in any significant measure; a fact that many are privately aware of but reluctant to speak out about. There are several factors, some relating to the mechanics of voting, some to the students themselves and some to timing that all suggest to me that the impact will be less than people predict.

The first key factor is the poor levels of registration for many students. Because of the way the registration system works (see Rethinking voter registration for details), many students simply do not get put on the register at their term time address. Some universities won't automatically register students in halls, citing data protection. Often the annual forms are set out in vacation. Individual rooms in halls of residence are especially immune to direct mailings. And so forth. So many students simply do not get on the register; nor do they easily get a form to add themselves. And this is often not picked up because previous occupants of their homes are still on the register; whilst it's especially hard to find a good time to reach students with a manual canvass (particularly if election services have limited resources).

Furthermore few political parties devote resources to targeting student voters in their constituencies. Local parties have limited resources and often have to leave out some areas in their leafleting and canvassing strategies. It's inevitable that student halls and suburbs with a lot of students renting will be amongst these - the high turnover renders much data obsolete, the weekend exodus means a high level of non-replies, students can't easily answer for their whole household, halls are difficult to access and so forth.

(And on a local level students can often be detached from the politics of an area because local media has limited penetration - free newspapers again don't easily get to students for starters.)

And one timing factor is that some university term dates put elections in the vacation or at a push the very start of term - this year's general election was three days into Queen Mary's term-time (and still in the vacation of my first university, Kent). Throw in the summer exam season when some students don't even move back but only travel in on exam days and you can see why the election is even less of a priority. The turnouts for campus based polling stations are often pitiful.

Then there's the basic fact that a large number of students simply do not vote (just) on the basis of student funding. The left-wing stereotype of most students is a myth perpetuated by the noisiest who aren't the loudest, and instead there is a coreish chunk for both main parties, another chunk for the Liberal Democrats, a large chunk that simply doesn't bother to turnout even when the polling station is on their doorsteps and only a small amount of swing voters. And they can be swung by other factors - everything from the economy, crime and public services to the environment, international development and support for the arts. Their basic philosophy on life will also play a factor here.

Finally there's the timing in all this. Very few of the students who voted at their term addresses in 2010 will still be students voting in those constituencies in 2015 - a few current undergraduates who go onto postgraduate degrees at the same institution and those on exceptionally long programmes but that's about it. Some more will settle in the area where they're studying (more on them later) but realistically any MP who this year made a local pledge to students about how they will vote will not be facing many of those students in 2015 about the pledge. Many of the new generation will have forgotten about the pledge unless prompted. But in past elections the generations who actually had to pay upfront tuition fees and then top-up fees did not disproportionately turn on Labour at the subsequent election.

It's my guess that the reason why a number of constituencies with universities in them have swung to the Lib Dems in recent years has comparatively little to do with the voting patterns of term-time students but rather to other university influences - in particular the votes of those on the university payroll or graduates who stay settled in their university town. So what was reported in 2005 as a student vote swinging over fees could actually have been a middle class public sector professional vote swinging over Iraq. (The students themselves might bring some keen activists who can provide the energy for a constituency party but that's a campaigning influence rather than a voting one.)

Of course with everything there are some exceptions and I've no doubt someone can find an example of high turnout amongst a particular university's students, perhaps combined with a niche campaign. But broadly I expect there to continue to be no major impact of the student vote short of a major targeted national campaign that manages to make it a force to be reckoned with.

(That's not to say any proposals to raise fees won't have any electoral impact. However look not to the students on & around campuses but to the parents back home.)


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