The uncomfortable adoption of marketing practices in higher education

Eaton, S. E., & Goddard, J. T. (2007). How marketing practices affect education – A comparative case study of Canada, the United States and Australia. In 76th Annual Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences (pp. 1–16). Alberta, Canada.

The proliferation of for-profit offerings and reductions in government funding have resulted in increased competition in educational markets.  To respond, many public educational institutions have been forced to adopt commercial business practices.  This is a review of a paper by Eaton and Goddard that examines marketing in education entitled, “How marketing practices affect education – A comparative case study of Canada, the United States and Australia.”

In the paper the authors wrote about the effect of marketing on various educational institutions in Canada, the United States, and Australia.  The authors provided information in the introduction about how the forces of globalization, advanced technology, and educational funding have required educators to reconsider the relationship between business and education.  The authors did not examine the morality of this trend, nor did they explore political or religious motives.  Instead they investigated how this shift has affected public education in the three countries.  Each of the countries is large and has a predominantly English-speaking population with an educational system that serves a diverse population.  Also, each of the countries has incorporated more marketing practices into their educational systems in recent decades with different acceptance and success.  Unlike most industries, many of those responsible for promoting educational programs have little or no background in business.  This has resulted in what can be a reluctant group of educational marketers; by most business standards not a formula for success.

The section about historical and geographical contexts addresses the relationships businesses have had with educational institutions through sport-related activities.  These relationships began as early as the 1920s and typically developed separate from core educational functions.  Among educators, there is less acceptance of business relationships within the core educational functions.  The authors raised a key question regarding how educational administrators have shifted their philosophies and operations to accommodate this linkage to business.

There are three case studies in the article.  The first study, in Australia, documents a shift to a business approach that began in the mid-1980s, a time when universities received 85% of their funding from public sources and didn’t charge tuition.  To accommodate the loss of public funding, universities began to charge full tuition for foreign students and aggressively marketed internationally.

The Canada case study deals with a shift to market-based professional development programs that not only covered their costs but became revenue generators for the institution.  For some Canadian schools the vocabulary of marketing created problems.  What educators would call the “right kind of students” became known as the target market. The school crests and colors were considered the school branding.  Many educators were uncomfortable with these terms and concepts.

In the United States case study a number of universities gave out electronic devices to attract students.  The authors suggested that universities were partnering with businesses under the guise of benefiting students and to position themselves as being on the cutting edge of technology.  In actuality, neither students nor faculty saw the link between the electronic devices and their education.

The paper is a literature review that provided worthwhile information about this topic that is becoming increasingly important.  More than twenty references were cited, the majority of which were within five years of the original publication date.  In terms of organization the paper was coherent and had a logical flow.  However, as a synthesis of existing research, the paper does not make a substantial contribution to the field.

The case studies in particular had limited value.  Specifically, the Australian and United States studies only provided high-level information about narrowly focused aspects of marketing.  The Australian case study focused on marketing to foreign students but provided little else on the impact of marketing.  For example, did the schools change their programs to cater to foreign students?  Did the increase in foreign students enrich the educational experience?  How did the universities attract foreign students who were paying full tuition?

The United States case study dealt only with giving away electronic devices to attract students.  Was this an effective strategy?  Did enrollment increase?  What were the challenges and opportunities associated with marketing and business practices being integrated into educational institutions?

The case study for Canada was the most worthwhile because the authors provided information about scholar and practitioner views of marketing and education.  Hesel stated, “What marketers call a brand or market position is nothing more than a compelling identity that expresses the special qualities of that product in ways that motivate the interest and inspire the dreams of important constituencies” (Hesel, 2004).  The views of Robert Moore expand the frame of reference to a community sphere in which the institution that a student attends becomes part of his or her identity (Moore, 2004).

The paper is informed by critical theory, which is often motivated by a desire to emancipate the oppressed.  This motivation is complementary to intersectionality research, which has a central purpose analyzing social inequity, power and politics (Garcia & Ortiz, 2013).  It was not evident in the paper how the authors used critical theory.  In addition, there were no significant findings presented.

Since this article was written in 2007, there’s an opportunity to revisit the three markets represented and evaluate the impact of additional years of marketing.  Broadening the research would provide additional insight.  In recent years many more universities have implemented customer relationship management systems.  These systems capture and report on student specific and aggregated data to evaluate the cost effectiveness of marketing and recruiting activities by program.


Garcia, S. B., & Ortiz, A. A. (2013). Intersectionality as a Framework for Special Ed Research. Multiple Voices for Ethnically Diverse Exceptional Learners, 13(2), 32–47.

Hesel, R. (2004). Know thyself: 5 Strategies for Marketing a College. Chronicle of Higher Education, 50(34), B9-10.

Moore, R. M. (2004). The Rising Tide: “Branding” in the Academic Marketplace. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 36(3), 56-61.

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Phil Schlesinger

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A student chooses a particular school for a $100,000 + education because they are giving a free $500 electronic device. What school would want a student with these critical thinking skills?

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