The erosion of trust in tertiary education and what to do about it

Where once tertiary education institutions competed with each other for enrolments – for the hard working as well as the talented – marketers in tertiary education are facing fierce disruption, and the enemy is far more subtle than technology.

What’s more, the heat isn’t necessarily coming from other types of education such as eLearning or the likes of Udemy.

It is instead a steady erosion of trust in tertiary education to deliver on
‘the dream’ of a bright future.

For the first time last year, The Edelman Trust Barometer — as reported in the Harvard Business Review — showed a decline in trust in government, media, business and NGOs.

“In almost two-thirds of the 28 countries we surveyed, the general population did not trust the four institutions to ‘do what is right’ — the average level of trust in all four institutions combined was below 50%,” writes Matthew Harrington.

Oxford and Harvard educated author of ‘Who can you Trust?’ Rachel Botsman puts it eloquently when she says, “To be human, to have relationships with other people, is to trust. Perhaps disruption now is not about technology. It is how it enables a shift in trust from institutions to individuals”.

While there’s a lot of noise about the disruptive influences of technology in the education sector (and other sectors), technology is merely an enabler. It broadens people’s choices, give them more options – options they wouldn’t even consider if they had enough trust in the first place.

If trust is declining across the board, the situation is worsened by the clamour of voices challenging the traditional university degree.

In the media, we read articles which claim a person who does a trade is better off over a lifetime than the person who studies a degree. We read that university degrees are irrelevant to employers (after Penguin Random House decided to drop degrees as a job requirement).

We read that university degrees no longer help you stand out from your peers, and that workplace training is better at preparing people for the work environment. We read that entrepreneurs like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs and Jack Dorsey (founder of Twitter) never got degrees (nobody is telling kids that these people are outliers — or that, for some, their ideas formed on campus in the first place).

I help companies formulate and share their ideas better through content marketing, but I see time and time again how institutions (particularly in education, health or finance) are losing the war of ideas to smaller, sharper more passionate competitors who have become so much better at shaping and sharing their ideas.

The content from many institutions (and it’s not just academic institutions — see my article on vaccinations in Idealog) — is boring, self-aggrandising and out of touch with the interests of its audience.

This is the greatest power of content marketing — its ability to show your audience that your interests are aligned with theirs. That you really are putting their interests first. When that happens, trust occurs.

Tertiary institutions – whether universities, colleges, polytechnics or institutes of technology – have more firepower regarding credible content and ideas than anybody else, but they need to get better at storytelling.

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