Educating the next generation: how writing to inspire can feel like an uphill struggle

by Stratton Craig

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Education copywriting is a challenge. Whether you’re writing a textbook, assessment criteria, or a university prospectus, you have to ensure you are writing clear, engaging copy, and not alienating your readers. Amongst getting the content right, developing tone of voice is crucial, but there is no such thing as ‘the student’. Students are often viewed as one collective audience, yet they vary in many significant ways, from age, to interests, to background, all of which will impact their choices on where, what, when and how they study in higher education. Developing effective education writing is now more important than ever due to societal changes, and some education copywriters may have to go on an educational journey themselves.
Changing views
Aspirations have shifted away from the standard route of GCSEs to A-Levels to Degree. UK employment is in a state of flux and young people are faced with uncertain futures. Due to increased fees, changes to industry, and Brexit, prospective students are now having to carefully consider their choices more than they did ten or so years ago. Further education has previously been viewed as a very positive experience, but now, it seems not all have a thirst for knowledge gained in a traditional academic setting. Realistically, not all have the patience, the time or the money to keep learning, especially when there may not be a job waiting for them at the end of it. While education journalists will always have something to write about, what does this change mean for universities?
Since 2010, going to university was no longer viewed as the main objective for young people. The student population (and others) protested against the increased tuition fees; people simply refused to get into masses of debt. Over the years, there have been some dramatic changes on the face of higher education. From 2010-2011, and 2013-2014, 73% of higher education institutions saw a decrease in entrants. Furthermore, alternative providers and further education colleges saw a whopping 259% increase on loan applications for tuition. Universities have more competition now than ever before.
New recruits
Of course, not all prospective students have been deterred by the £9000-a-year fee, and for those with specific career goals in medicine, law or engineering, for example, university is a must. Marketing therefore has to try and cater to the individual, and many universities are using case studies and storytelling to try and engage people. While exhibiting success stories through current students or graduates, universities are creating relatable marketing. One example is Queen Margaret University, who use the story of a past MSc business graduate to advertise their part-time and full-time postgraduate business courses that can ‘fast track’ careers.
If significant changes in the working world have a detrimental effect on university recruitment, education copywriters will have to work hard to prevent dire straits. From 2014 there was a surge in the UK’s recruitment of international students, specifically those that were non E.U., as students at home chose to head straight to work. Now as the UK makes its departure from the E.U., there are sure to be further changes in international student recruitment.
An American report from 2016 describes education marketing and recruitment as an ‘arms race.’ It explains that for decades in the US, non-profit colleges and universities spent around 2% of their total marketing budget on new student recruitment, compared to for-profit colleges who spent around 20%. As more colleges provide online education solutions for a more accessible, flexible form of study, finances are less stretched. This opens up potential for an increased marketing budget by a significant amount: ‘American colleges will move inexorably from its current $10 billion to $100 billion a year.’ Not only this, but universities in the states have picked up ‘bad tactics’ such as hiring ‘shady companies to generate clicks and inquiries, then drive those inquiries to call centres using sophisticated scoring algorithms.’ Will this happen in the UK too?
In contrast, UK universities seem less fierce in terms of recruitment campaigns, yet that’s not to say there isn’t a need for drastic measures. If you’re an alumni, you have probably been asked the question ‘what are you doing now?’ through an email marketing campaign, or maybe even a letter sent to your parents’ address. Many of us don’t have time to complete these, but they do provide crucial information to help universities advertise their education services. Why should you study with us? Well, look at this impressive list of careers from our graduates… But statistics are not enough. Education copywriting is about inspiring people who are lost or dejected, convincing cynics that education is never wasted, and generating interesting and engaging copy.
Finding the right voice
Towards the end of last year, the BBC reported that 80% of young people are not prepared for the workplace when they leave school at 18, lacking ‘essential business skills’ such as numeracy. This is a problem for employers, but an opportunity for universities. The manner in which education writing is developed therefore needs to be progressive, breaking through the negativity of current views on further education and taking into account what school leavers want. Tone of voice is just as important as content. The UK Government has recently spent undisclosed amounts on their ‘Get In Go Far’ ad campaign, aimed at school leavers who can get an apprenticeship, or paid work, simultaneously attending university one or two days a week. Using case studies, they demonstrate to their audience a modern solution for a modern world – money is a major influence on how many young people make their choices post the age of 18.
Persuading people to go to university or into other further education has perhaps always been a challenge, but being in tune to the next generation is key. Not only this, but addressing mature students is also significant. There is nothing worse than a patronising campaign, and there is no point living in the past. If the key solution to effective education copywriting is developing the right tone of voice, you need to ensure that you do your research, and view your audience as a diverse range of individuals.

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