University – a department store of knowledge?

Teksti | Mika Launikari

It certainly does not do the university full justice to look at it through a department store metaphor. But let’s play for a moment with the idea that the university is a department store of knowledge – preferably a luxurious, high-end store of top-quality knowledge and skills, with a strong market position, a diverse range of products, a reliable brand, a large loyal customer base and first-class staff. The management of the department store is concerned with the same issues as the rectorate of the university – where to find growth, how to create value for customers and stakeholders, how to manage and motivate staff, and how to enter new markets.

Photo by Image-Love / Adobe Stock (Laurea Education Lisence)

Traditionally, a department store is a retail store specialising in selling a wide range of products, with several product lines. Department stores offer items such as clothing, footwear, cosmetics and toiletries, textiles, furniture, household appliances, office supplies, toys, sports equipment, and a food and grocery department. In addition, customers may have access to a café and restaurant world where they can refresh themselves while shopping – they are an important part of maintaining the overall attractiveness and comfort of the department store. The business of a department store is strongly based on its ability to create experiences for customers and to appeal to their emotions and values. For a department store, the best customer is the loyal one who keeps coming back. Today, department stores also operate online, where an increasing share of their sales comes from.

Using the department store analogy, it can be said that an individual higher education institution usually offers multiple study programmes in many different fields, from which its customers (students) can choose the most suitable and preferred one. Of course, there are many factors involved in the selection- and decision-making process, not all of which are directly under the control of the institution. When choosing a place to study, at least the concrete benefits of the field of study and studies in relation to working life (such as fast employment in one’s own field after graduation) and future career opportunities weigh on the scale; the location of the university, the cost of housing and living in the locality, transport connections, student union activities, the possibility of studying online, the reputation of the university and the related recommendations of one’s own close friends. We also choose department stores for some of the same reasons, especially we consider value for money, a good product range, friendly service and a location close to home.

Studying is a multifaceted process that requires individuals to invest time, energy and money in their own future. The ’customer relationship’ with the university is not entered into for light reasons, but is considered from many different perspectives. Higher education institutions are in fierce competition with each other to attract the best, most talented and motivated young people and adults to study on their campuses. To this end, higher education institutions work hard for high-quality and up-to-date teaching and for building an equal, diverse and inclusive community that is well connected with the external world. Unfortunately, HEIs cannot attract students by department store loyalty schemes that offer bonus points and other benefits, unless study points are seen as bonus points that eventually lead to a jackpot, i.e. a full degree.

Guidance and counselling together with other student support services promote students’ commitment to their studies and strengthen their attachment to the higher education institution and its student community. The purpose of guidance and counselling services is to facilitate students’ studies and career planning, and to enhance their general well-being and ability to cope with stress. Perhaps these guidance and counselling services for students could be compared to the ancillary services that department stores offer to their customers, such as expert advice on formal or business attire or personal colour and style analysis. Department stores ’hook’ their customers with carefully tailored offers and promotional campaigns to keep them loyal to their services, products and brand for as long as possible. When we talk about lifelong learning in academia, it certainly translates into lifelong shopping in a department store context.

Department stores train their customer service staff to be psychologically friendly and resourceful in a variety of encounters and interactions. Product knowledge and expertise are an essential part of the competence of sales staff working at the customer interface, in stores and online. Similar situational sensitivity in interaction, together with pedagogical competence, is required by university lecturers who deal with students of different ages and backgrounds every day. RDI experts work closely with companies and organisations in the working life. Here, too, social and communication skills are needed alongside professional competence to achieve results in development projects.

Universities of applied sciences, in particular, cooperate closely with private and public sector employers, not forgetting the third sector. In this activity, special attention is paid to the current competence needs of the working life and the related requirements. For this reason, Laurea maintains a constant dialogue with employers and does its utmost to ensure that its teaching offer and methods provide students with the skills and competences needed in working life. Working life is an important client of Laurea, whose needs must be known and met as well as possible. In the same way, department stores anticipate and closely monitor changes in the needs of their customer base and respond to them as best they can.

Growth in the department store business is based either on existing customers buying more than before or on finding new markets and thus a new customer base. In a situation where the domestic market no longer offers growth potential, it is usually necessary to consider expanding horizons to new regions. In a similar way, the management of higher education institutions today includes in their strategies measures aimed at attracting new customers to Finland, i.e. more (solvent) students from other countries. In addition, through the education export projects of Finnish higher education institutions, Finnish educational expertise is seen as a remarkable way to grow business abroad. Higher education has become a global business.

Information about the author:

Mika Launikari (PhD, M.Sc. Econ.) works as a Senior Specialist at Laurea University of Applied Sciences. His main duties include research, innovation and development in the areas of internationalisation of higher education, lifelong guidance, upskilling pathways/competence development, and transformative leadership.


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