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The moral limits of meerkats

Estimated read time: 12 minutes

What, exactly, does Aleksandr the Meerkat have in common with the higher ed sector? Well, our pal Nik Higgins is here to explain 👇

On Mongeese

In 2009, Compare The Market, a then little-known price comparison site, successfully rescued its commercial fortunes by launching a marketing campaign centred around an oligarchic Meerkat named Aleksandr Olov.

Aleksandr, CEO of ‘Compare the Meerkat’, good-humouredly wrestles with the challenge of differentiating his own enterprise from its eponymous namesake. The campaign was plainly a bit of creative genius. It was also, by anybody’s standards, really funny. Who doesn’t love Meerkats? Especially ones that happen also to be eccentric aristocrats.

Why was it clever? Because it self-consciously riffed on Compare The Market’s lack of brand visibility. Confusion neatly became clarity, and our collective soft-spot for creatures fuzzy was gently translated into brand affinity.

Alexsandr Orlov, Founder and CEO of Compare The Meerkat

The campaign did something more than just make us Google ‘Compare The Market’.

At a more structural level, it fundamentally managed to change the tone in which the (frankly, pretty boring) activity of market comparison was discussed. It lifted it from the cultural doldrums and set it in a register that, if not serious, was at least fun. I mean, let’s be perfectly honest, aggregating Public Liability Insurance providers isn’t the most wholesome of activities. Getting a discount on your broadband is a decent result for the wallet, but it’s certainly less of a win for the soul.

Alexsandr, despite his lifestyle of bizarre tsarist opulence, created a friendly facade for the otherwise banal process of saving a few quid on your energy bill. He humanised (or at least anthropomorphised) the market.

Leaky buckets

Lately, tone has been a hot topic of conversation in the world of HE marketing.

In the face of demographic scarcity and intra-sectoral competition, Clearing 2018 turned into a predictable maelstrom of repartee and rebuttal as institutions vied for students. However, in the midst of all the usual antics, the exchange between the University of Essex and Leeds Beckett University stood out as a stark moment, even amidst beyond the ‘banter’ that has become so commonplace during the febrile Summer months.

In the interest of brevity, I’ll omit the blow-by-blow account of what happened; the salient facts being one institution insulting the reputation of the other, an attendant outpouring of scorn and disbelief, and an apology summarily tweeted from the offending account.

All in all, the actual incident was a lot of nothing. The overzealous actions of a busy (and probably highly stressed) social media professional; meant to come to nothing. A whimsical salvo fired into a frantic and confused battlefield. It is exactly this sense of casualness, however, the nothingness of the actual event, which makes the incident so interesting.

The actual content of the 280 guilty characters is really an irrelevance. It is the fact that the exchange was possible (and necessary, cogent, practicable, imaginable: choose your own adjective) within the accepted conceptual parameters of the sector that should make us do a double-take.

The fourth wall

Compare The Market’s Meerkat campaign and HE social media have, you may be surprised to learn, got a lot in common. Not in style or content, of course, but in purpose.

Beneath a thin veneer of dissimilarity, their intent and operation is actually strikingly similar; both aiming to increase the proximity between their audience and the market: creating distance between eyeballs and economics, belief and banality.

In short: they’re the friendly face of competition, a layer of creative tectonics atop a magma of molten competition.

The problem with the Essex/Leeds Beckett beef was that it did exactly the opposite of what it was meant to do. It was supposed to be a gentle sabre rattle in the direction of another university; just two players in the Twittersphere joshing one another — no biggie! But it wasn’t though, or at least it didn’t turn out to be.

The exchange was something else. It was a yap that echoed as a snarl, and reverberated as a roar far louder that anyone ever intended. A tiny, reflexive miscalculation at the keyboard that shattered the illusion of universities as serene bubbles floating around their neighbours, instead calling attention to the fierce competition ranging within the sector.

It reminded everyone, in an unfortunately ugly way, that this was a market.

You see, we often forget that the we refer to the HE ‘sector’ as a sector. These six letters don’t constitute a benign term. ‘Sector’ is a loaded word. It’s economic doublespeak.

In the recent annals of educational history, the word ‘system’ fell out of favour. We all started referring to the university ecosystem as a ‘sector’. A small shift in semantic logic, but a seachange in shared meaning and understanding. A system connotes a cooperative network, but a sector connotes a market, and a market (where it doesn’t connote Meerkats) connotes competition.

Moral limits

About the same time that Compare The Market was priming Aleksandr for stardom, Michael Sandel, the Harvard political philosopher, was busy writing What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets.

In the book, Sandel asks a fundamental question: should everything be for sale?

He’s exploring a world (our world btw) in which market norms have crowded hitherto uncommercialised spheres: how we transitioned from a explicit market economy to a transcendental market society. He is unpicking the intrusion of a logic so pervasive that we hardly noticed it happening.

Higher education, as I’m sure you already know, is one of those crowded spheres.

The transition of HE into a market environment raises some complex and problematic questions.

First, there was no watershed moment. Market forces have acted on universities for a long time and in lots of different ways. The emergence of a globally mobile student population has, over an extended period of time, drawn universities into a competitive relationship across continents and timezones.

With reference to the UK, the lifting of the student number cap by the Coalition government definitively signalled the start of out-and-out competition amongst domestic institutions, but the dynamics of the market have been felt by these universities for much longer than this.

Secondly, the outcry at the loss of higher education as a ‘public good’ (and therefore something ‘for sale’) conveniently forgets that, in the UK at least, historical (and dare I also say current) participation rates indicate that university study has never actually been a public good (in the sense of being owned by, and for, everyone).

In reality, higher education has, through most of its history, been an exclusive and inequitable domain.

Oh yeah, those guys…

Pop history aside, the application of Sandel’s key question to higher education should make us ask some more philosophical questions about the role of market norms within the university as institution and the sector as a whole.

What is a degree for?

This question — and the extent to which we’re happy with it to be understood as a saleable commodity — is far, far beyond the scope of this article. No conclusions on those questions are offered here. No value judgements are made on the ethical ‘rightness’ of a marketised HE system either. Coming up with answers to those questions is for someone with more time, and a considerably bigger brain, than I have at my disposal.

What I will do is mention the ‘S’ word, absent (well, nearly) from this article so far: students.

Whilst the leaky bucket spat raised lots of questions about our university system and its relationship with the market (hence the point of this article!), it probably raised more practical and immediate questions about the moral responsibility of an institution’s social media output (and therefore its marketing and communications more broadly).

The bust-up shone a spotlight on the reality of commercial forces acting on institutions, but it also showed how easy it is to forget that students (i.e. real young people) are the point of the whole thing.

Now, some people will respond to this assertion by pointing out that it is exactly because there is a market logic governing higher education that students (as individuals, and as a discrete interest group) get forgotten.

I think that’s over-simplistic, however.

Addressing, pragmatically, the sector as we find it should lead us to set boundaries and establish tonal norms that enable communication with — and for — students that is untroubled by the, however real, competitive pressures of the market.  

An institution’s Twitter has its own role to play: it forms part of the buffer that mediates the heat of the competition and the needs of students to communicate with universities in an authentic, inclusive, and accessible way.

That’s how you establish a moral limit.

Or create a Meerkat.