Catching the train around Melbourne's inner suburbs in the past few weeks, one can't help but notice the mass of advertising of universities, pitched at the school graduates of 2004 who are intending to become Brendan Nelson's guinea pigs in the Brave New World of tertiary education. Competition is fierce in the market, and for the first time in the HECS era, price competition (albeit in a limited form) is a reality. Though there have always been significant differences between institutions in the past, it is only through agressive advertising that these differences are actively promoted.
Take Swinburne University, a product of the early 1990s, and promoting itself as the 'vocational university', whether in the form of the yuppie business graduate making a presentation in an anonymous Asian city, or the pysch graduate getting dirt under the fingernails talking to a group of down-and-out kids. The message is clear, that Swinburne is a means to and end, and a very effective one at that.
Melbourne University, on the other hand, trades on its proud but conservative heritage. No smartarse slogans, gritty human interest angles, instead it is the university crest which is ubiquitous in the uni's advertising.
RMIT, on the other hand, tell us that it is young, hip and fun, and the place to go and play with high tech toys and hang out with beautiful people in the city (or Bundoora).
Also noticable is the University of Tasmania pitching itself to the Melbourne market for the first time. No doubt market-researched to within an inch of its life, the university explicitly mentions that, unlike most universities, UTas will not be increasing it's HECS level. Another advertisement tries to counter the perception that Tassie is boring (well, not if you're the Governor, but I digress) by explaining that it is the place to go for a wild weekend.
This is a maturing market, where the boundries and grounds for competition are being established. The future of universities is specialisation, and niche rather than broad-based institutions, and consumers... sorry, students... need to gain an understanding of the relatives strengths of each of these universities. Over time, students will become more savvy to what each university has to offer, and the marketing will become more subtle. Until then, universities need to wear 'difference' on their sleeve, and their advertising.