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To Centralise or Not to Centralise? That Is the Question….

By Caroline Scallan

Over the past couple of years, many universities have asked themselves this question. You may remember the period in the nineties where decentralisation of service teams in universities was all the rage. This was followed by Faculties working as ‘mini’ businesses. Both fueled a gargantuan step-change in the operations of universities.

We’re still waiting to understand what the full impact of the fees system will be – early signs are that fees have not put people off going to university. But, there is massively increased competition, a smaller market of home 16-21 year olds, and potential students, who are generally more ‘clued up’ when it comes to choosing an institution, need more persuading.

To add to the pressure, international competition has never been so great. Visa changes, emerging and growing markets and a post-Brexit era mean each university regularly takes stock of its position, looks to update its strategy and tries to understand where its ‘growth’ will come from.

These home and international factors mean that university marketing and recruitment teams have never had to work so hard! Particularly from the middle to lower end of the league tables, where a downward push on tariffs has probably impacted them the most in relation to their recruitment numbers.

So, what are the factors universities need to consider to decide whether central marketing teams or decentralised teams are the way to go?

Top 5 areas to consider:

  1. Skills – does your current set up mean you have adequate skills in the right areas to make a difference?
  2. Budget – what is your resource and staffing budget across centralised and decentralised teams (and are you being asked to cut either of these budgets?)
  3. Size – is your set up right for the size of your institution or do you need to round-skill people to take on many different roles?
  4. Targets – are you meeting your current recruitment targets and, apart from external market factors, do you think there are truly any internal reasons why you are / are not?
  5. Ambition – is your institution ambitious and does it want to grow its Home, EU or International numbers?

An audit of each of these areas will help to get under the skin of what is or isn’t working for you. Having worked at two universities, I have the experience of working under both systems and I’ve been part of a dynamic and ambitious university changing from a decentralised to a centralised team. There is no quick fix, there is no right or wrong answer. What is right for each university will depend on the five factors above and how to understand where each university needs to ‘professionalise’ more to get to the best outcome for them. Personally, I think centralised teams have the benefit of having ‘more bang for their buck’,  but the risk is losing academic buy-in to marketing and recruitment functions when they are most needed, such as attendance at open days and speaking to potential students.

At the end of the day, just like recruitment of students… whichever route you take, it’s all about communication, professionalism and trust.