For those of you interested in the ‘beautiful game’, it probably did not escape your notice that Wolverhampton Wanderers celebrated their promotion to the Premier League earlier this month. This is not just great news for the Club and its fans, but also for the University of Wolverhampton, which has grown up in the shadow of the Club’s stadium, Molineux. It cannot be without coincidence to learn (as I did earlier this week) that, over the past fortnight, interest in the University has soared – especially among prospective international students – as the Club’s success has made headlines around the world.
Football has long had the power to put cities on the map. This is something which can be extremely beneficial to higher education institutions in their midst. In 2016, students, delving into the question of why some UK universities are better known among the general population than others, put wider recognition down to their ‘location in a big city, particularly one with international football teams’. This was one of the reasons why my own alma mater, Durham University, was seen to be off many people’s radars, even in the UK.
By contrast, Manchester – with its two immensely popular international football clubs – continues to be a thriving student city. Even a decade ago, the University of Manchester recognised that ‘the city of Manchester’s brand and its football teams have played a big part in making the university attractive’, particularly to Chinese students.
It is no wonder, then, that universities without a city name in their title have been quick to link themselves to their local football teams in promotional material. De Montfort University’s website, for example, tells us that its home city, Leicester, ‘is known for its history, culture and diversity, with… Leicester City Football Club’s 5,000-1 Premier League victory [in 2016] keeping it in the spotlight’. This shows us that if the name of an institution does not ring any bells about its location, then it can almost certainly be relied on that the mention of its local football club will.
Some higher education institutions are also going one step further by forging partnerships with major international football teams. Last summer, sports-intensive Loughborough University London joined forces with Chelsea Football Club to agree a three-year partnership to work together on research, internships and engagement activities. The press release, unsurprisingly, detailed Loughborough’s delight at partnering with ‘one of the most recognised and respected football clubs globally’ – a good move if you can get it.
Just last week, Kingston University, too, announced a partnership with Fulham Football Club Foundation to deliver a new summer school offering students an insight into the business world of professional sport. Kingston first teamed up with Fulham FC in 2015 in a strategic arrangement which undoubtedly helps to draw the Greater London university right into the heart of the UK’s capital and its tradition.
With the World Cup fast approaching, football will inevitably be the talk of the summer, and the UK’s great footballing cities will once again benefit from a surge in international attention. This is a gift for university marketing and recruitment teams across the country. To emphasise the point, during the last World Cup, a QS blog ranked England among the top five study destinations in the world for football fans (a ranking arguably achieved for its world-class universities rather than the performance of its national team).
Whether a fan of the sport or not, it is undeniable that the higher education sector and the footballing world are becoming increasingly entwined – on a local, national and international level. And, as pressure to attract international students reaches fever pitch in the face of a domestic demographic decline, building on the strengths of the world’s most popular sport could help UK universities cement their place at the top of the league of international student choice.