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Susan Bloch-Nevitte – Core skills: We’re ready for your close-up

“We know what employers value most,” says George Brown College’s current marketing campaign – appearing on a subway wall or TV screen near you. As Norma Desmond said to Cecil B. DeMille: I’m ready for my close-up.  So too core skills, it would appear.

You’re familiar with them – the so-called soft skills, essential skills, employability skills, or as HEQCO recently described them: higher order cognitive and transferable life skills. Among them are communications, problem solving, critical thinking and teamwork.  According to Karen Thomson, George Brown College’s vice president of marketing and strategic enrolment management, the campaign was designed to “break through the clutter” in postsecondary positioning and was based on quantitative research with GTA employers, who were definitive about what they’re seeking in new hires. Early stage results?  Applicant numbers for fall are up and message recall tracking shows top of mind awareness.  That’s marketing-speak for “it seems to be working.”

And speaking of working, HEQCO’s and a plethora of others’ research is unequivocal: the #1 reason students pursue higher education is for the job. Colleges caught on to this approximately 12 seconds after Ontario’s minister of education Bill Davis tabled Bill 153 in 1965, which gave life to the province’s college system.  If their marketing messages are any indication, many universities are still reviewing the research.

From the college sector, there’s Loyalist College’s to-the-point  We put you to work, Canadore College’s take on the changing job market in Shifting Forward, and St. Clair College’s (let’s face it) smack down of universities in Start here. Go anywhere.

Compare and contrast these with the University of Ottawa’s classic spin on research and rankings with Canada’s University, the University of British Columbia’s ode to aesthetics in This is our world, and the University of Toronto’s faculty-rich Boundless: Meeting Global Challenges and Preparing Global Citizens.

Not that universities are supposed to emulate the intentionally applied vision for the college system. It’s neither their nature nor their inclination, although (irony alert) their advocacy organizations – the Council of Ontario Universities and the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada – often make the explicit connection, while the college sector’s advocacy body Colleges Ontario is leading the charge for degree granting – which would make colleges more like universities. It’s confusing but stay with me.

Regardless of the sector, “the competition is getting more aggressive and with it the need to scrabble for market share,” says marketing expert and co-founder of Academica Group Ken Steele. His “scrabble” means more than advertising. “Product design is as important as promotion, and the most powerful marketing is based on the product.”  Think work and picture the University of Waterloo, with its early and enduring lead in co-op education.

But this blog is about messaging, not visionary leadership in higher education, which is another blog for another day. Today my messaging question is this: if students (and their parents) are all about the job and career-ready skills, is higher education listening? According to Steele, and ad man Doug Geddie, colleges yes, universities not so much, but some of their toes are wet.

“It all comes down to differentiation,” says Geddie. For universities that message used to be based largely on reputation (take Queen’s for example, which has “influenced Canadian higher education since 1841”), tradition (such as Western with its “school spirit that is the envy of the country”) and size (Nipissing “fosters a tightly knit community”).  Those messages are still alive and well and the seats are full, thank you very much.

Canada’s major research universities – the so-called U15 – still tend to push the research message of prestige and excellence,” says Steele, “and that resonates with some undergraduates.  But there’s no question that career outcomes is the message students want to hear and universities don’t pound that drum very directly; it’s implied.”

It has become very front and centre in student recruitment view books, however, where impassioned and successful alumni extoll the virtues of their education at (university name goes here). And as Geddie notes, many institutions are shifting to a more student-centred message – arguably a critical first step toward hearing what students are saying.

Among them are Brock University’s Discover Both Sides of Your Brain, and the University of Windsor’s UWill. York University’s This is my time goes further in a campaign featuring current students describing their future careers.

But elite status, rankings and research remain marketing staples, “because faculty like it,” says Steele. “They think it’s talking about them.”

“Campus marketing committees don’t know anything about marketing,” says Geddie.  “They are much more comfortable talking about teaching awards and PhDs, depth of faculty and depth of program. That tends to be the way the academy wants to see the sector promoted.” He credits the growing use of professional marketers and established advertising techniques for the shift toward more client-centred messaging.  “It’s beginning to seep into universities,” he says.

But it can’t be too overt,” says Steele. “Universities that are talking jobs might be positioning themselves as colleges and they won’t take that risk. We all know why students are coming but we don’t sell it that way. It’s an unspoken understanding.”

Ok, I think I’ve got it. But one thing that shouldn’t be unspoken (and HEQCO is doing its part to up the volume on learning outcomes) is whether Ontario postsecondary students are actually acquiring the knowledge and skills they need for life and work. As HEQCO president Harvey Weingarten wrote for the Globe and Mail, “Despite considerable consensus on the range of knowledge and skills students should acquire in their postsecondary education, our commitment to assessment doesn’t measure up. We need to do a better job of measuring whether these skills and knowledge are, in fact, taught and learned in Ontario’s colleges and universities – not as an exercise in ranking but as a process for improvement.”

Great point but lousy fodder for a subway poster.

Susan Bloch-Nevitte is executive director of communications at HEQCO.

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