UNIVERSITIES are at risk of being left behind in the stampede to attract new students if they do not embrace new technology, experts in advertising and digital media say.
The founder of the Compare Courses website, Tom Davies, says public universities are hampered by bureaucracy, and their reliance on twice-yearly open days and advertising in print and electronic media is not enough to stave off the aggressive marketing tactics of private and online providers.
''I look at how hungry and how quick and responsive the private providers are versus the public providers,'' he says. ''If you look at the decision-making process of a public provider, it can take three months and require five or six different people to sign off; with a private provider, you have a conversation and two days later you've got a signed contract.''
Unlike websites with information on the full range of universities, such as the government's MyUniversity or the Good Universities Guide, Compare Courses also aggregates information on TAFE, vocational training and short courses.
Davies says the extraordinary expansion of organisations such as Open Universities Australia and Open Colleges is ''driven by their ability to go out and market themselves effectively online and have a clear understanding of the relationship between the cost to acquire a student and the likelihood of that student enrolling.''
With more than half of all Australians now owning a smartphone, and almost a fifth owning a tablet, it is critical to use digital media to reach tech-savvy teens.
The head of local business at Google, Claire Hatton, says the trackable nature of internet advertising gives advertisers more information about who sees their message and how they respond to the ad. ''Online advertising is incredibly accountable,'' she says.
Hatton says there are three key ways to reach a potential customer digitally: search engine advertising, mobile access and video - the most popular being YouTube.
A fun ad designed for a Perth institute went viral earlier this year and has now reached more than 2 million views.
The surprise hit, It's a Snap!, was an amateur video bankrolled by the Central Institute of Technology to raise awareness of its new name, says the head of marketing at CIT, Kenley Gordon. After driving more than 8000 people to the site on one day, it was hailed as a huge success.
Older institutions are adapting to social media but use it more to engage with enrolled students and alumni rather than to recruit new ones, says the project manager of the marketing office at Monash University, Lisa-Jane McDonald.
Acknowledging that change is difficult for traditional organisations to adopt quickly, she says most universities are doing the best they can.
''People used to think the risk was being there and no longer controlling the message,'' she says. ''The smart people now see the risk as not being in the space.''