Width of marketing and selecting a subject – your own interest
Marketing, as an academic discipline, constitutes an extremely broad field with marketing literature making use of concepts, theories and techniques from sociology, business studies, psychology, and numerous others. While at first this breadth can present quite a daunting range of possibilities when trying to pin down a topic for a research-based dissertation, the most important thing to do is to select a topic that you have a definite interest in. This might sound obvious but choosing to research something that you actually want to know more about, rather than something that you think would be easy to study and produce a 12,000 word thesis on, will not only help to keep you motivated throughout the process but will also help you to produce genuinely original and interesting research.
Having entered university in the UK at a time of significant change, both for the form of higher education institutions and the sector within which they reside, I was particularly interested in examining the nature of these changes and how they have come about. During my time at Royal Holloway, I took part in a number of student demonstrations against issues connected to these changes, such as higher tuition fees and the profit-motivated closures of small but invaluable academic departments. As much as marketing might seem a strange choice of discipline from which to launch an interrogation and critique of marketisation, it became ever more clear to me that the huge mixture of ideas and research instruments available made it the perfect choice.
The primary constraints on any research dissertation are the maximum allowed length, and the resources available to you as an MA student. These constraints were actually of great use to me in terms of setting achievable goals for my research. I wanted to better understand the more subtle forces that serve to create an environment in which higher education institutions come to be thought of as businesses in a competitive market and begin to behave as such. Part of this interest was also inspired by Chris Hackley's Critical Marketing course, to which I have to give a good deal of credit.
In doing preliminary research I came to see that there are a multitude of social, cultural and economic forces and that to try to produce comprehensive own research would leave me no room to actually look at anything in depth. At this point the importance of working together with my supervisor was made manifestly clear to me. Alan advised me to try to look into an element that I had a more personal experience of, and to do so to the greatest possible depth. Choosing a micro-, rather than macroscopic focus might seem like it would hinder your ability to answer whatever grand questions you might have about your topic, but this was something important I had to realise about academic research; it is far better to say something new about a small area, and in doing so actually contribute to scholarly discourse on it, than to simply retread the same ground that has already been covered by masses of books and research literature.
Having waded through numerous university league tables and rankings on the way to choosing Royal Holloway to study at, and subsequently finding that these had almost nothing to do with what I experienced as a Royal Holloway student, these seemed a clear choice. Smartphones as consumer goods can be benchmarked against each-other on a basis of technical specification, as can cars, and computers for instance, but is it useful to try to fit university education in to this commodity market paradigm? Furthermore, as this is already happening, how are the effects of this experienced within universities? These were, I believed, questions that I could really sink my teeth into, and with Alan's suggestion that I look into literature making use of Michel Foucault's concept of governmentality (the way in which subjects are bought to behave and regulate themselves according to a given ideology without direct command or coercion) I set to work.
The unit I had taken on qualitative research methodologies had given me the skills and confidence to make use of a mixed-methods approach combining critical discourse analysis with qualitative interviews. This allowed me not only to examine what elements of higher educational institutions were valued in rankings and league tables, but also to understand how the privileging of certain abstract elements of higher education changed the way in which academics and institutions had to behave. Through a sustained campaign of emailing the heads of departments at a large number of universities I (admittedly to my surprise) found a number who were willing to take part in semi-structured interviews about my topic. I combined this with a close analysis of the websites and presentational styles of a number of leading league tables and ranking exercises, which were also discussed with my interviewees.
This combination produced a number of interesting conclusions and while it was of course gratifying when my conclusions matched closely with my original presuppositions, I found it most exciting when I became aware of points I had not considered before and additional nuance that could serve as a starting point for even further research. Although I had originally suspected that all league tables and rankings had some effect, it became clear that those carried out by the government itself, such as the Research Excellence Framework were clearly the most significant to those I had interviewed. The fact that these exercises in particular are tied to future research funding as well as job prospects meant that they exert significant power over the activities of institutions and academics; what is important to the REF inevitably becomes important to universities because to ignore it means that an institution has no hope of meeting the abstract criteria of 'excellence', however valuable and novel its research might be by other standards. At the same time, while commercial league tables are less significant to research funding, they are of great importance in attracting paying students, and so again I found that they directly feed in to a discourse of students as consumers and higher education as a commodity.
Although I found that both league tables and government-run ranking exercises contributed to a marketised view of higher education, they do so in different ways, with league tables focusing on education itself as a commodity, and ranking exercises focusing on the research that universities produce as a commodity. Returning to what I mentioned earlier about taking a deep focus on a small area, I found that my dissertation had indeed answered some of my early questions about marketising effects in higher education, but had also opened up a few pathways for future research in the area. I fully believe that without the breadth of knowledge and techniques made available to me on the marketing course, it would have been extremely difficult to produce a dissertation on this subject to the same level.