Research and Development Proposal:
Marketing the University’s Sustainability
The potential of marketing the University of Plymouth’s sustainability credentials are
recognised both in terms of graduate recruitment and employability in the Sustainability
Policy (SP), 7.9. The Policy does not refer explicitly to staff recruitment and retention
but sustainability commitment may in the future prove significant in this regard.
The University came second in the 2007 People and Planet Green League Table of UK
Universities. It has the only Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning related to
university-wide transformation towards a sustainability ethic and ethos in England. The
City of Plymouth itself came first and fourth in October 2007 green city surveys carried
out by, respectively, the World Wide Fund for Nature and Forum for the Future.
These successes notwithstanding, the sustainability credentials of the University are not
particularly profiled in the way the University markets itself to potential students. The
University’s strong commitment and engagement with sustainability seems an under-
recognized and undeveloped marketing asset.
The potential and ramifications of marketing Plymouth as a ‘Sustainability University’ is
as yet unexplored. There is strong evidence of the embedding of sustainability in the
curricular content and pedagogy of a wide range of degree programmes at the
University. These programmes are experiencing high and increasing recruitment and are
attracting students of a high calibre. Environmental Science, Geography, Architecture,
Digital Art and Technologies, Performance Arts and Teacher Education are some of
these areas. In terms of Campus developments procurement initiatives to support the
sustainability agenda are gaining momentum: Plymouth University has Fair Trade status
and has formally joined the international network of Slow Food Universities. Chemical
and energy reduction in cleaning processes, waste reduction and recycling are examples
where changes have made the University a more sustainable institution. Chancellery has
made the in-principle decision to seek ISO 14001 status. Through the Sustainability
Strategic Action Plan (SSAP) staff from across the University have agreed to play a key
role in promoting and developing the University of Plymouth as a learning institute
where sustainability is high on the agenda. The Sustainability Policy is receiving national
and international attention.
The time seems ripe to explore and develop marketing implications and ramifications.
This document outlines a research and development proposal and process to set the
exploration and development in train.
The Literature falls into three main areas:
The incorporation of eco or sustainability marketing courses/programmes
offered by an institution in Schools/Faculties.
Sustainability marketing as entered into on the part of business and some cities.
The concept of marketing education
The literature which focuses on the marketing of education and the implications and
questions this raises concerns definitions of product, production, client and consumer.
Marketing is a philosophy of management through which institutions consider, debate and clarify
their underlying principles and purposes to meet the needs of their clients. (Harvey & Busher
This relates to the way that the world of commercial marketing has developed and
refocused itself since the 1950s. It is noted that recent trends in the 1990s have
developed understanding and recognition of ‘relationship marketing’ whereby
employees, suppliers and customers are seen as relevant. It is suggested that this is
particularly significant in the case of marketing education (Harvey & Busher, 1996 p 26).
Harvey and Busher focus on marketing as it relates to the primary and secondary school
sector but they make scant reference to further or higher education.
Marketing education with a focus on attracting international students and the notion of a
global market place has received attention in recent years (Russell 2005, Binsardi &
Ekwulugo 2003). Terms such as ‘customer satisfaction’ and ‘optimum service’ are used
(Russell 2005). The motivation of institutions in placing significance on their marketing
activities is mainly seen to as a means to develop a ‘competitive advantage’. Case studies
from Poland and Sweden are explored with regard to how this was addressed.
Marketing sustainability in a university context has received little attention in the
literature. An exception is the research exploring the importance of managing the
communication of sustainability on campus at the University of Luneburg, Germany
(Franz-Balsen & Heinrichs 2007). This study focuses upon internal communication of
sustainability, with regard to sustainability related activities and initiatives at the
Writings in the national press over the past couple of years have offered summaries of
the work that higher education institutions have been engaged in with regard to ‘green’
or ‘sustainability’ projects.
The literature which discusses the changing focus of marketing modules or degree
programmes to incorporate sustainability, ethics or environmental elements within
taught courses suggests that universities are responding to the needs or demands of
organisations. The implications of the CSR agenda could be seen to contribute to this.
For example in the case of the Greener Marketing module at Gloucestershire University,
students are required to consider various stakeholder positions on the adoption of
sustainability in an organisation’s marketing strategy. It is suggested that this also
encourages students to consider their own personal behaviour and decisions (Dermody
in Roberts & Roberts 2007 p 12).
Follow on from market research UoP
Market research relating to student choice has already been undertaken by the
Marketing department. These data sets and the associated tools which have been
developed (e.g. electronic records/databases, student/graduate communication streams)
offer the basis on which the current strategy concerning marketing the UoP to potential
students has been built. These data sets could be interrogated for their implications for
marketing sustainability. The continued use of such forms of data collection could also
form the basis of monitoring the implications of sustainability marketing in the future,
thereby offering a longitudinal element to the research.
There are a number of other universities in the country that are highlighting their
sustainability credentials in terms of the internal and external marketing strategies they
are pursuing. Bradford University, whose traditional strap line of ‘making knowledge
work’, has promoted itself as a university with a sustainability focus since it launched
‘Ecoversity’ in 2005, ‘making sustainability work’.
Gloucestershire University has The Centre for Active Learning. In the information
presented to prospective undergraduate students on the main university website it
offers ‘going green’ as one of a number of a reasons to chose the university. It also
trumpets the fact that Gloucestershire University was the first English University to gain
ISO 14001 status. Kingston University boasts C-SCAIPE, and London South Bank
University offers its Education for Sustainability Programme. Leeds Metropolitan
University was ranked first place in the People and Planet Green League 2007 for
environmental performance (Plymouth University, as mentioned above, occupying
second place). Leeds Metropolitan University draws attention to this acclaim on its main
International examples of universities focussing attention on their sustainability related
practices and ethos include Harvard University in the US. This university has a ‘Green
Campus Initiative’ which has reportedly reduced environmental impact, increased
student numbers and saved money.
Despite many universities moving toward a more sustainability mindful agenda, with
identified benefits, it has been noted during data collection for the Green League study
2007 that within many universities there is a general lack of awareness about such
This demonstrates the need for senior decision-makers within institutions to be strongly
committed to and supportive of environmental initiatives and staff, to the extent that such work
becomes more high profile and is mainstreamed throughout institutions’ operations.
(People and Planet 2007)
This suggests the role for internal marketing in promoting awareness of the
sustainability credentials of an institution as a key factor in contributing to external
marketing of those same credentials. This can be viewed as of particular significance
when linked to the recent Forum for the Future/UCAS survey findings concerning the
views of university and college applicants (aged between 16 – 21 years) when choosing
… 45% of those intending to study education, social sciences, architecture, and building and
planning saying a good track record on sustainable development was important or very important
in choosing where to study.
(Forum for the Future & UCAS 2007)
The implications of raising the profile of the University of Plymouth’s sustainability
credentials could be multi faceted as indeed is the nature and scope of the sustainability
agenda. The SP and SAPP weave the threads of sustainability through all aspects of
University life. The concept of relationship marketing would suggest that employees,
suppliers, customers/clients would all be affected (Harvey & Busher 1996).
The research proposed would focus upon the marketing of sustainability to an external
audience of primarily potential students, but would also encompass parents and the
general public. The hypothesis is that student recruitment would be effected in a
beneficial way in terms of student numbers and calibre linked to the marketing of
sustainability at the University.
The findings of a recent research report for the Higher Education Academy concerning
the links between sustainability and employability with respect to graduate recruitment
highlight the growing significance of sustainability for graduates and employers. Findings
from this report are overviewed as:
The trend to more responsible employers is affecting the graduate job market and the demand
for more particular competencies from recent graduate recruits.
The graduate employability agenda is now closely linked to the employer sustainability agenda.
There is mounting evidence and media coverage that students want to work for ethical
employers who are environmentally and socially responsible.
Many HEIs are responding to the challenges of education for sustainable development (ESD)
through institutional changes in terms of Campus, Curriculum and Community, but not so much
in terms of Competencies or Careers.
(Cade, July 2007)
The relationship between sustainability and employability is illustrated in the new Skills
Plus Policy of the University. An enhanced awareness ‘…of major social developments
including the importance of sustainability…’ is identified in one of the principles
unpinning the opportunities for all students.
The Forum for the Future/UCAS survey supports these findings.
Overall, 46% say that environmental considerations are important or very important when
deciding what organisation to work for, and 42% say the same when deciding what type of career
to go into. These figures go up dramatically for 20- and 21-year-old respondents, to 52% and 50%
(Forum for the Future & UCAS 2007)
If future graduates are considering both, career choices and the credentials of an
employer through an environmental or sustainability lens it suggests that the
programmes of study and education institutions that they chose to attend will be
scrutinised with a consideration of these future employment aspirations.
Medium and Message
This offers particular focus for the medium in which the University is marketed. How
has the concept of marketing the University of Plymouth to an audience of potential
students been addressed in terms of the mediums used, for example prospectus and
website, and the overt and covert messages that this choice of medium conveys through
a sustainability lens?
A prime example of this is the production process involved in the University’s
prospectus. Highlighting UoP’s sustainability credentials in a glossy prospectus, produced
on the other side of the world may well be seen as undermining the sustainability
message. Transparency in the marketing of a university with regard to processes
involved in moving a university towards a sustainability focus are important. This
suggests exploration of sustainability in terms of the Professional Support Programme1
within the marketing department of the University, hence raising sensitivities to
perceived inconsistencies in medium and message.
It is important to recognise that the marketing of the University is not confined to the
work of the Marketing Department alone. Schools and Faculties produce their own
marketing literature for potential students, which does not go to Marketing for approval
(although certain generic guidelines are laid down centrally). This adds significance to
the analysis of medium and message of marketing materials with lessons likely to be lost
Previously referred to as Continued Professional Development
if Faculty materials are not reviewed. The need for new central guidelines (even a
tighter rein) may emerge. It is anticipated that the scope of the proposed research
could focus on two UoP Faculties.
Major Research and Development Questions
1. What does academic and professional data say about the recruitment benefits
(and/or disbenefits) of branding a university as a ‘sustainability university’ or using
a similar ethical branding?
2. How do intending applicants to the University of Plymouth respond to the
prospect of Plymouth branding itself a ‘sustainability university’?
3. How do other universities, in the UK or elsewhere, brand themselves according
to sustainability goals and commitments, and to what effect in terms of student
and staff recruitment and retention?
4. What does an artefact/media analysis of the promotional/marketing materials of
sustainability-branded universities reveal?
5. What does an artefact/media analysis through a sustainability lens of current
University of Plymouth promotional/marketing materials (Marketing Department
and Faculty produced materials) reveal?
6. How could University of Plymouth marketing/promotional materials of sufficient
quality be produced more sustainably, and at the same or less cost?
7. What are the developmental implications of questions 1-7 for the University of
Schedule and Research/Development Stages
1. Literature review and analysis of academic/professional literature (Question 1),
2. Analysis of university sustainability branding and marketing through review of
promotional materials and interviews (Question 3), November/December 2007
3. University of Plymouth applicant survey (Question 2), November 2007- January
4. Artefact/media analysis (Questions 4 and 5), January 2008
5. University of Plymouth promotional materials sustainability analysis and
identification of alternatives (Question 6), November 2007 – January 2008
6. Writing of a report (Question 7), February 2008
7. Presentation to Marketing Team, March 2008
8. Marketing/CSF co-presentation to Chancellery, March 2008.
The research and development team will comprise Paula Jones, Stephen Sterling and
David Selby from the Centre for Sustainable Futures, market research personnel from
Marketing (for item 3 in the Schedule), and a CSF Centre Fellow (Harriet Sjerps-Jones
(for items 4 and 5). Additionally, technical help will be sought in addressing item 6. A
CSF/Marketing Group will meet periodically to review progress and will review drafts of
the final report.
Anticipated research development outcomes:
* An analysis of the existing marketing message presented to potential UoP students –
recognition of present state.
* Understanding of the approach that other higher education institutions have used with
regard to marketing sustainability and the scope and suggested implications/impact for
the University of Plymouth.
* A set of recommendations for marketing of sustainability at the University.
* A situation and research informed set of priorities for addressing the marketing of
sustainability at UoP to move the agenda forward.
* A move towards a new marketing strategy.
Binsardi, A & Ekwulugo, F (2003) International Marketing of British education: research on the students’
perception and the UK market penetration Marketing Intelligence & Planning 21 (5) 318-327
Cade, A StudentForce for Sustainability (July 2007) Employable Graduates for Responsible Employers –
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Dermody, J Evaluating Greener Marketing pp12-20 in: Roberts, C & Roberts, J (March 2007) Greener by
Degrees Geography Discipline Network: Cheltenham
Franz-Balsen, A & Heinrichs, H (2007) Managing sustainability communication on campus: experiences
from Luneburg International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education 8 (4) 431-445
Harvey, J. A & Busher, H (1996) Marketing schools and consumer choice International Journal of Education
Management 10 (4) 26-32
Russell, M (2005) Marketing Education: A review of service quality perceptions among international
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Bradford University (accessed 01.11.07) http://www.brad.ac.uk/external/
C-SCAIPE – Kingston University (accessed 01.11.07) http://www.c-scaipe.ac.uk/
Durham University (accessed 01.11.07) http://www.dur.ac.uk/
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Paula Jones 07.11.07