The Mirage of Marketing at University

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Is the Quality Assurance Association – responsible for safeguarding standards and improving the quality of UK higher education – fit for purpose?

Marketing is fascinating and its effect can be magical.

In many instances, simple and powerful solutions can be found which can transform a brand. Unfortunately marketing is often felt to be arcane, yet this supposed complexity and seeming inaccessibility of marketing, much of this is due to what Theodore Levitt, a great writer on marketing, described as “hidden agendas in business suits”.

A cover up?!

But, it also has roots in the way marketing is taught. This is endorsed by an approach to rating marketing modules which seems as suspect as those given to the sup-prime mortgages in the financial crisis. For example, AAA ratings for sub-prime marketing modules. My experience is naturally that of an individual, in this instance at Westminster Business School, but broader implications can be drawn from it, in particular insights given by the way the regulatory authorities avoided the issue. Just like Watergate, the attempts at cover-up are far more instructive than the original transgressions.

Symptoms and Causes:

The issues fell into two areas: symptoms and causes. With regard to the former, they were apparent in the grade inflation effected by the university on one module in particular, the introduction to marketing in the first year.  On this, over two years, marks l had given were consistently inflated by around 15% or more. In one instance, all the marks were raised by a unilateral 20%, so that 30% became 50%. This uniform approach indicates that no individual assessment of these papers was made.

On approaching the head of department, l was told that my marks had been raised because they were out of sync with the other marks on the module. It is instructive that the criterion was the need for conformity rather than specific failings, which were never articulated. This conflict was an anomaly as on all the other modules l had marked the grades l gave were broadly in line with those of others.

This appeared to be a transgression in terms of the standards applied to students and which they had the right to expect.

Inflating Grades!

In the US, some teachers in Atlanta were sentenced in 2015 to ~seven years in jail under racketeering legislation for inflating grades. After exhausting the complaints procedure at the university, l contacted the Quality Assurance Association (QAA) whose stated aim is “safeguarding standards and improving the quality of UK higher education”. Unfortunately, their approach appeared to be more akin to safeguarding their position and that of the university.

In addition to the grade inflation, which was the symptom, l also approached the QAA on what l felt to be the cause – the low standard of the module. This included briefs for assignments which were incoherent and the two main models used – PESTLE and Porter’s Five Forces. The latter was put forward by Michael Porter in his book The Competitive Advantage of Nations.

Its inappropriateness in terms of marketing is given away by the title, as brands play on a much more restricted field than nations. This is underwritten by there being not one mention of “marketing” in the index for the book. Five out of the eleven lecturers on this module also felt this model was confusing and unnecessary.

Marketing is generally concerned with the fate of one brand at a micro level, within a market/industry.  Both of these models are far detached from this. Asking the students to bang these round micro pegs of marketing into the square macro holes of nations and industries could have only one result – confusion!

It was a module which was supposed to establish an understanding of marketing but turned out to be a Gordian Knot.

Taking all this to the QAA only resulted in frustration and delays.

The process lasted nearly ten months, yet one of the main responses was that l had not provided enough information. Even if this had been the case, there was ample time for this to be rectified. Their pretence of a response was repeated several times. In one letter, half the substance of my complaint was not even acknowledged. Eventually, they agreed to answer specific points in detail. In the event, these were ignored. The refusal to engage appears symptomatic of the defensive nature of the QAA which, in the light of its aims, does not appear fit for purpose. But then, in the light of my experience, this also appears to apply to the teaching of marketing.

After the end of the academic year, l bumped into one student who had completed the degree. She felt it was a scam and that she would have to do a masters degree in order to achieve some substance. A pity.

Written by Jonathan Cahill.


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