Context is everything. The higher education sector will reap rewards by forging stronger connections with local communities

Posted by Viki Cooke On 13 February 2020

This blog gives 10 key insights to help those working in higher education to frame their communications with the wider public to garner increased recognition and respect for their institutions and the sector’s achievements.

1. Start from where people are, not where you wish they were

Even if rationally we recognise that we live in echo chambers, it’s very difficult to imagine that others have views based on different interests, networks and levels of engagement. 

What matters to us simply might not matter to them or be their priority.

Higher education is a sector that, for most people, most of the time, is of limited relevance. Even when people are thinking about education, most members of the public start by thinking about schools. When they come to think of higher education it’s through a very specific lens, in most cases that is of the cost and value of a degree.

2.Context is everything – you are not working in a vacuum

It’s really easy to forget that the rest of the world is not focused on what you’re focused on and that people are being constantly bombarded with messages from you, your competitors and everything else that is competing for their attention.

Just as an example, the average person is exposed to more than 5000 ads a day! 

For the higher education sector,, you are trying to promote the benefits and advantages in a context that is crowded with critical messages about, for example, the commoditisation of higher education, the marketisation of the sector and student fees, to name but a few.

3. When you are really really bored of saying the same thing there’s just a chance that other people might be beginning to hear it

Let’s remind ourselves of the recent election campaign and what cut through to the public.  It was, of course, seen as the Brexit election overall and there one particularly clear, concise message that was constantly repeated by the Conservative Party – Get Brexit Done.  That just about landed!

Aside from that? Right the way through the election campaign 40% of the population failed to notice anything at all.  Those that did were more likely to notice “lies” typically at around 20%, or notice gaffes such as Jacob Rees Mogg’s comments about Grenfell.

The success of landing the Get Brexit Done message was, partly, it’s simplicity but crucially the repetition and consistency of message across every spokesperson and every channel.

Remember this when you’re getting bored!

4. The mood of the nation is depressed – the depth of division and the impact of that division are a real concern.  Although there’s relief that we have the prospect of progress now.

The past 3 ½ years have been really difficult. The public have got increasingly depressed and frustrated and have felt that divisions have got deeper and deeper. In our mood of the nation work last summer 64% of the public thought that Brexit was bad for people’s mental health, rising to 70% of women.

73% agreed that the UK is currently seen as a laughing stock by the rest of the world.

When we went into the last election there was a real sense of despondency and very little excitement. 

Having said all of that, there is a feeling of real relief that there is an outcome that might mean that Brexit stops becoming the sole focus for government and that there is the opportunity to get on with what really matters to people and affect their daily lives.

5. Brexit wasn’t the cause of division it was the result of division

Brexit was an outcome of long-standing deep-seated divisions that are still very present and that need to be addressed before there is any chance of the nation coming together again and feel ‘healed’ in any meaningful way.

The nation feels divided in many ways: culturally; economically; socially; geographically and, perhaps most worrying, around what our core values are as a nation. 

Access to higher education still remains a cause for division in spite of the significant impact of widening access. 

6. The public has a clear set of priorities

Ipsos Mori’s polling on the public’s priorities showed that the NHS crept ahead of Brexit at the end of last year.  Reflecting the growing concern that we have for the future of our NHS. 

There’s a long gap after health and Brexit before we have a number of key concerns. 

Poverty, homelessness and inequality are all real worries, perhaps not surprisingly after all these years of austerity.

Education is a priority but largely people’s starting point is schools. Crime, and the fear of crime, is closer to home, and access to affordable housing, either to buy or rent, is a major issue for younger people.

So, again, the higher education sector is competing for attention amongst the public. 

7. Most people have very little understanding of the public value of universities with their dominant lens being the cost of a degree

48% feel positively disposed towards universities with another 31% feeling neutral. Worryingly 40% of the population say that they are not informed to any extent about the impact of universities on their local community …. What a missed opportunity!

Of some concern is the fact that even though almost half of the population feel positive about the sector, there is not much indication that they will step up and act as advocates.  Even amongst the most positive (giving a score of 9 or 10 on positive impact) only 11% say that they will speak out.

When asked what words people would associate with universities, the dominant one by a long way is expensive.  The cost of fees plus the cost of living = a big debt. 

8. The value of a degree is being questioned and it’s essential that value is understood on a much wider basis than just getting a degree

Universities are thought to be very expensive but, perhaps more worryingly, there’s a perception of commoditisation of degrees and questions about the long term value of a degree, particularly in light of its high cost.

Three quarters of the public think that being a graduate is less impressive now because so many people have degrees. 61% think a degree is only worth doing if it gets you a better job. 

Crucially two thirds agree that they would encourage their children to go to university – in spite of their concerns.  So there is still a belief that it’s the best route.

But fundamentally it’s not the only route and progressive universities are likely to be looking at new ways of engaging people through partnerships and different models of education.  Finding real alternatives to a 3 year undergraduate degree feels more important than ever.

9. But there is a high level of nascent pride in the sector and a belief that we are amongst the best in the world..

More positively, however, there is real pride in the sector ….

  • 73% agree that UK universities are globally recognised for their outstanding research
  • 70% agree UK universities have an important role to play in meeting the challenges that the UK faces
  • 70% agree UK universities are amongst the best in the world

So there’s an awful lot to play for! We need to activate and build on this underlying pride and good will and give people a better, broader understanding of the sector and its benefits to us all as individuals, citizens and members of local communities.

10. The sector has a major opportunity to build on this nascent pride by communicating more about the impact of research and its relevance to society and their role in their local community

Knowing more drives positivity in the sector. Earlier I said that 48% of the population feel positive towards the sector … we asked that at the beginning of a survey before telling people more about the sector … at the end when we repeated the positivity question it had risen by 13% to 61%.  Even a little information can make a really big difference.

And what are people most interested in?


It was rarely mentioned spontaneously and when we did move the conversations onto research it was very apparent that it is an abstract concept. For people to engage we must make research both relevant and human.

There’s no fear of blue-sky research providing there’s a sense that it’s trying to tackle a real problem/challenge. Storytelling around research is incredibly important and necessary. Everyone in the sector should be able to share great examples really easily.

So to conclude … the sector is something of a sleeping giant. It can be and mean so much more to the nation and can potentially be a part of rebuilding us and healing division.


Viki Cooke


Viki has more than 25 years’ experience providing insight based strategic advice to global and national clients from the private, public and third sectors.  She works closely with Chief Executives, Secretaries of State and their management teams to ensure the voice of the people that matter to them is embedded in their thinking.

Viki has a track record for innovation in the development of deliberative research methodologies, best practice reputation research and stakeholder engagement. 

Viki is a serial entrepreneur having co-founded a number of other successful companies over the last two decades including Opinion Leader Research, The SMART Company, Brand Democracy and Caucus.

Viki is also Vice Chair and Pro Chancellor of the University of Warwick Council and Chair of Hubbub Foundation.