There’s a lot to do in 2024...but it can be a year of change for the better


Dan Beynon, Director, SMRS


It’s been an exciting start to the year despite the annual challenge of getting back into things through these dark wet mornings! 2024 feels like it will be full of change and I’m hopeful that will be positive change, matching our agency mission here at SMRS which is to help organisations change for the better. Last year saw us work with loads of fantastic organisations to help them make improvements and deliver success in three areas, culture, brand and communications.


And in education we have worked with more than 80 universities, colleges and business schools along with the Department for Education over the last 12 months. I’m not sure that I need to add to the collection of pieces filling our screens that detail the very difficult circumstances universities are operating in currently. The challenge is clear. But over the next 12 months and beyond, it is going to be very important that institutions create environments and strategies that will give them the best possible chance for sustained success and that are appropriate to the particular situation in which they find themselves. In the last two years it’s been interesting to observe many universities adopting very similar strategies around their portfolio or how best to grow student numbers without exploring fully the detail of whether those opportunities are the right ones for their particular market circumstances and capabilities. The coming few years will need institutions to be bold about what they offer, and have real clarity about how they deliver that offer and who they want to deliver it to.


My thinking on the best way to approach the next 2 or 3 years in Higher Education is unsurprisingly based around the areas of focus that we have as a business, culture, brand and communications. Those areas are integrated and success in one leads to success in others.  In terms of culture, to maximise the impact of collective efforts under pressure, it is absolutely vital that universities create organisational cultures that enable people to thrive and collaborate effectively. And to do that they must first understand where their institutional culture is at and where that culture is limiting performance or needs improvement. Successfully diagnosing the strengths and weaknesses of their culture and creating clear plans around positive change will help universities both to engage their teams in collective objectives and to retain and recruit great people. At the start of 2023 there were signs that the HE sector was acknowledging that culture within our universities is not always what it should be and as last year progressed the appetite to do something meaningful about that problem has grown.


Achieving distinction in a busy market has long been a challenge for universities. The boldness and clarity I mentioned earlier is also important when focusing on an institution’s brand and reputation. Differentiation happens through developing a detailed understanding of the reality of an institution’s brand and reputation as well as that of its rivals. That understanding helps create communications that are both engaging and authentic and that allow potential students and staff to see themselves as part of a community. Over the next 2 years whether universities focus on their institutional brand or specifically their employer brand, achieving success in this area will play a huge part in sustained institutional success.


The third area of focus for success in 2024 is delivering better communications and campaigns. Until a meaningful policy decision on funding is reached for UK Higher Education, institutions will need to focus on how to achieve more with decreasing resources. This is possible but success will only come from an integrated approach. This approach must involve developing a much greater understanding of potential audiences and their likelihood to enjoy success at a specific institution. Just because there are a lot of 18-year-olds, and they want to study subjects that an institution offers, they won’t necessarily be right for that university. This integrated approach to communications also involves delivering the best, most personalised experience for potential students that enables universities to build stronger relationships with applicants as they get closer to enrolment. Those closer relationships will help avoid the surprises that the sector has seen in the last 2 undergraduate cycles as the link between the number of applications and the number of eventual enrolments has become more complex. And lastly universities must develop a clearly defined portfolio that is fit for purpose and works for the institution, potential students and employers. That portfolio might be specialist or very diverse, it might offer different pathways and learning experiences but the offer must be right for the institution and suited to future demand. For universities, combining detailed audience understanding with a great customer experience and a fantastic product offer will lead to successful communications.


I’m looking forward to another year working closely with so many fantastic people both at SMRS and across the Higher Education sector. SMRS will continue to support the CASE Universities Marketing Forum. Under Mark Garratt and Angelina Bingley’s great leadership alongside their new Volunteer Executive, I’m excited to see the impact UMF will have in 2024 as they show the power of collaboration across the HE sector. Please do take the chance to get involved and to support UMF if you can. And the same goes for Student Minds, SMRS are delighted to continue to support them as they continue their very important work this year.


Happy New Year!


Dan Beynon