5. Reviewing competition of existing taught postgraduate provision: internal considerations

When conducting a strategic review it is necessary to conduct a critical analysis of the current provision to determine whether the PGT programme still fulfils the original criteria and if these expectations are still relevant given current and likely future market conditions. In some cases programmes may only require a small adaptation while in others, wholesale change may be required.

Most institutions will be compared on a wide range of multiple criteria by prospective students when reaching their decision about where they should study for their postgraduate education. Although price will be a key component, this is usually dictated centrally by the institution, as is the department’s reputation for all but the most research-intensive departments. Moreover, the option of being the lowest cost provider (as there is more scope for differentiating the charging structure) is unlikely to be an available option since the school and/or institution usually sets fees, and a lower fee can be seen as a signal for a lower quality course.

The focus therefore should be upon identifying/developing a competitive advantage within the provision/course that differentiates the department from the rest of the marketplace, thereby generating criteria that students will value and, when choosing between multiple institutions, will choose the department because of the perceived advantage that is offered.

The most successful method for differentiating yourself from another institution is to provide a superior quality product, which is usually signalled by a higher departmental reputation. Such signals would include:

  • the entry requirements needed to be able to secure a place on the programme
  • responding faster to student needs, through providing a new stream where necessary
  • responding to the feedback received through various evaluation methods
  • relationship building: this is key, whether directly with students or with institutional partners, such as sponsors, the local community or local businesses.

Hence, an effective strategy for attracting students to the programme covers the following key points:

  • clearly defining target students and addressing their needs
  • having a full knowledge of competitor institutions in order to facilitate the creation of a competitive advantage
  • the strategy must incur acceptable risk
  • the overall strategy should be resource and managerially supported
  • the core strategy to attract students should be derived from the product and marketing objectives
  • the strategy should be internally consistent with the elements blending to form a fully coherent whole.

Thus when comparing taught postgraduate provision there are a number of factors which need consideration. Students’ decisions will usually be based on their perceived quality of the course. With more information about each course being published online, institutions should expect students to compare directly and quickly key quality measures across multiple departments to inform their decision. Therefore, when seeking to attract the identified student market, thought needs to be given to the quality factors, such as the entry requirements students are expected to hold before the course begins – the temptation is to lower entry requirements to encourage more students to apply, but this acts as a market signal for a lower quality course, and students are more likely to have a deficit in their knowledge, resulting in lower achievement. Therefore, the correct balance to strike is crucial, with directions for what entry requirements to set informed by reference to the competitor departments’ requirements.

As postgraduate degrees are more specialist in nature and with the view to obtaining employment within relevant sectors, students are more likely to be engaged with their postgraduate degree choice through critically assessing the course content to determine whether this meets their long-term objectives for securing a job within their chosen market. Postgraduate degrees, therefore, have to provide both the general postgraduate level grounding in economic concepts, and attractiveness so students will choose this particular stream and department over all those offered within the higher education marketplace.

A central decision within the strategy regarding which programmes and streams to offer is the choice of the target market(s). There needs to be a decision made regarding which segment(s) of the market is attractive to the department, considering the capabilities/specialities of faculty members. Establishing streams for which the department is ill-equipped could potentially cause serious reputational damage. Creating a stream that is just a bland MSc in Economics will mean the degree will compete with the rest of the market, with far more established players and will do little to demonstrate competitive advantage to potential students. The choice of the target market will emerge during the analysis of the current market of higher education courses, the SWOT analysis and the conclusions that steered the department’s strategic direction. At this point, a broad view will probably emerge, with a number of segments that are your potential market, of varying attractiveness. A decision then needs to be made in order to narrow these down.

Currently offered streams should match current target markets. If the higher education market has changed, then thought needs to be given to whether to retain a stream, reposition the stream and its syllabus to target different market segments or, in the extreme case, divest and stop offering this stream in order to free up resources for other streams that are continuing to grow.

Alongside these decisions, thought needs to be given to which competitors are to be targeted. You need to be realistic about who competitors are: for example, where a top competitor comparison will be of interest is if a similar course is not offered by such competitors, either near your location or within the same institutional standing, as this could be an underserved market which you could tap into. Similarly, if a perceived lower-ranked institution offers a course that is not served within your institutional standings boundary, then there is the opportunity to corner this market and attract students who go to a lower-ranking university in order to study this subject. These courses then may be viewed as weak competitors and relatively easy to entice students away from.

The focus in programme development should be placed upon creating a competitive advantage; this will be the ‘signature’ of your programme that links your identified target market and the competitor target markets you wish to secure. This is the achievement of a superior quality through differentiation of the streams offered; whether that is student experience, uniqueness of stream or access to highly respected academics in their fields. In order for a major success over other institutions, a clear performance differentiation on the factors that are important to students is needed.