Area Studies: Developing Marketing Strategies

Date: 13 March, 2002
Location: British Academy, London
Event type: Seminar

Event report

by Alison Dickens

This event was run in order to address a growing concern among colleagues in Area Studies that students are either not electing to take Area Studies degrees or are not continuing in the field at postgraduate level. The events of September 11th further focused everyone's minds on the importance at a national and international level of expertise in and knowledge of the regions of the world. There was much talk in the press about the need to foster this expertise and knowledge but the fact remains that in many areas there is a declining number of students from an already small pool. There are a variety of possible explanations for this - a misunderstanding of what such study involves, a lack of awareness of employment opportunities for Area Studies graduates, over-stretched resources within the disciplines that serve Area Studies courses, low levels of research funding for the field, institutional constraints. Whatever the reason it was felt that, particularly in the case of small areas or small departments some collective initiatives needed to be developed in order to prevent the disappearance of much needed expertise in this field.

The Subject Centre, in consultation with its Specialist Group for Area Studies, decided to launch an initiative to create a space for this dialogue and an invitation was sent out to all relevant Subject Associations (there are some 25 in all), to colleagues in departments and to the Subject Centre's own contacts. Around 30 people attended the event representing a wide variety of Area Studies - Chinese Studies, Middle Eastern Studies, Japanese Studies, European Studies, Australian Studies, American Studies, East European Studies, German Studies, Canadian Studies. The day provided plenty of opportunity for discussion stimulated by the two keynote presentations and a demonstration of the Subject Centre's powerpoint presentations aimed at marketing Languages and Area Studies. There was a good deal exchange of views across areas and a general agreement that it was very important to work collaboratively rather than competitively.

Below are summaries of the main elements of the presentations and outcomes of the group discussion sessions

A. Marketing strengths: some core selling points

Professor Dick Ellis (Nottingham Trent University)

In this presentation Dick Ellis who is a professor of American Studies and chairs the Subject Centre's Specialist Group for Area Studies outlined some of the major strengths of Area Studies programmes.

1. The World needs Area Studies
He re-emphasised that in the wake of September 11th the importance of knowledge of the world has taken centre stage and that Area Studies should, as argued by Professor Anoush Ehteshami, ensure that it remains firmly on the agenda: "The atrocity in New York should be a wake-up call to British universities" (The Guardian 20th September 2001) In this article Ehteshami asserts that "Now is the time to revisit area studies, and ask the Government, the research councils and Hefce to take more seriously the contribution that area-studies scholars and regional experts make. If the world has really changed, so should our response to it." Indeed, as Dick emphasised, a positive approach is required from within Area Studies and he mentioned that in the languages community (which is strongly allied to many areas of study) rather than a 'crisis' mentality there is a spirit of 'pull together or sink together' which is leading to much collaborative effort to address the recruitment crisis.

2. Employability & Residence Abroad
One of the most well-rehearsed arguments for learning languages, is that of employability. Statistics show that languages graduates are very employable. However, as Dick pointed out, the actual use of the language skills may not be the principle skill that is valued by employers. A recent survey by Cathy Watts (University of Brighton) found that many students perceive that their language skills will not be able to compete with those of an increasing abundance of native speakers. Dick finds a more persuasive argument for employability of Area Studies graduates (with or without language skills) in their experiences of Residence Abroad.

He quoted from a survey undertaken by Jim Coleman (University of Portsmouth) as part of an FDTL Residence Abroad project which asked 827 modern language graduates what they felt the impact of their period of residence abroad had been on their short and long-term employment. The responses showed that:

  • 70% said that RA made them more employable
  • over 70% said that they felt that their RA helped them get their first job
  • over 33% said RA was a significant factor in getting them a job
  • over 70% said RA helped them to get subsequent jobs
  • over 86% felt that RA helped them in their jobs
  • 48.4% felt that RA helped them in their jobs 'a lot'
  • 96.3% saw RA as a 'good investment'

These statistics, together with clearly stated learning outcomes from residence abroad, can help build a powerful argument for Area Studies where study abroad forms a central part of the curriculum. Dick gave some examples of these outcomes (from Coleman's work):

  • Cultural - experiencing and gaining insights into other cultures
  • Intercultural - learning to work across cultures in an open-minded and self-reflective way
  • Academic - studying at other universities, completing a dissertation and most importantly engaging in projects that are directly related to the period of residence abroad e.g. ethnography (see or reflective journals
  • Personal - increased independence, self-reliance, self-awareness and even innovation (in tackling the unfamiliar and difficult)
  • Linguistic - learning/improving foreign language skills or becoming aware of differences and similarities in the use of a common language (e.g. English in America) and other sociolinguistic aspects of communication

More information on this survey can be found at:

3. Intercultural Competence
Dick went on to argue that some of the skills associated with residence abroad can be acquired through an area study programme even where that does not involve residence abroad. In a multicultural society it is entirely possible to have intercultural encounters e.g. a student of Latin American Studies may be encouraged to seek out expatriate communities within the home country. Indeed Dick argued that as culture is a social construct it can relate to institutions or commercial enterprises and that cultures may be regional, national or international.
He summed up intercultural competence as involving:

  • insights into the institutions of a country
  • making cross-cultural comparisons
  • recognising culture as a social construct
  • recognising culture as intra-national
  • developing ethnographic skills e.g. observation without misunderstanding, recognition of ethnocentrism, interpersonal skills, acquisition of cultural/linguistic skills in order to interact in a new cultural environment

4. International Citizenship
In the current climate of high employment the employability argument may not always be the key motivation for students so Dick suggested that we need to stress other benefits of Area Studies. In an increasingly global market international citizenship could be seen as a key attribute of graduates in Area Studies.

5. Interdisciplinarity and multidisciplinarity
These are central attributes of Area Studies programmes (as highlighted by the recent benchmark statement for Area Studies) which can be represented as a dialogue between disciplines. Students will learn how to apply different perspectives to a problem and will gain insights into the ways in which national, international and global issues represent an interplay of multiple forces. In using this aspect of Area Studies as a marketing tool, Dick warns, we must ask ourselves what is unique about interdisciplinarity in Area Studies (as opposed to in other fields).

In the ensuing discussion the following points were raised:

  • Area Studies should make good use of the potential for alliances with other subjects and departments within an institution
  • The use of generic labels (e.g. Area Studies or African Studies) is not always transparent to students and employers, therefore it is important to outline the components of a particular field
  • There are frequently institutional tensions regarding marketing - e.g. corporate approaches to publicity materials etc.
  • For some Area Studies the departmental base is unstable and can be confusing for students
  • Languages could be seen as dragging down Area Studies (where they form a key component)
  • There are 2 main issues to be considered - 1. The definitional debate (what is Area Studies) and 2. Changing Market (students want different types of degrees e.g. not European Studies, but European Politics/Law/Business)
  • Using the local market e.g. putting on events to interest the local community
  • Residence abroad can be seen as costly by some students and act as a disincentive There should be an increased emphasis on the skills gained through interdisciplinary area studies
  • Widening participation should be supported by part-time options and different ways of learning
  • Exploit the unusualness of small Area Studies e.g. Central and East European Studies encourages students to dare to be different

B. Marketing Area Studies Programmes within your Institution

Professor David Head (University of Plymouth)

This session looked at some strategies that have been adopted within the context of International Business at the University of Plymouth in which the languages department was faced with the challenge of selling itself to other departments within the School and the institution. David Head (Head of the Department of International Business) began by outlining some of the difficulties that may be encountered and suggesting ways of overcoming them.


  • cluelessness (what is Area Studies). For many people the term is too fuzzy and the generic label is particularly unhelpful, however he stressed that it is not helpful to blame others for ignorance
  • it involves considerable effort/ingenuity to sell any product
  • expressions of interest my fall by the wayside as it becomes evident that no room can be made in the curriculum e.g. replacing something else is not an option
  • expressions of interest may also lead nowhere when it becomes clear that units offered are taught in a foreign language in which the students do not have adequate skills
  • territorial barriers (protectionism at Faculty level) may stand in the way of other departments adopting your modules
  • subject chauvinism or lack of recognition of the value of interdisciplinarity (seen as diluting a 'pure' discipline


  • energetic approaches to Heads of Departments/Schools, programme managers, students (at choice events) with information about what you have to offer
  • offer to talk to students about your modules/units and what they can gain from taking them choose programmes most susceptible to your arguments e.g. business studies, politics, international relations where an intercultural dimension is relevant.
  • be aware that both staff and students will have a wide background of experience or expertise (e.g. students at 'A' level will have studied more subjects, students may be bilingual or have travelled during a gap year while staff may have skills that become hidden as their careers evolve)
  • look to the postgraduate market e.g. MBAs now emphasise some of the 'softer skills' such as cross-cultural competence which is a current 'hot topic'. Harvard MBA students are reading Tolstoy and subject specialists are being used to teach it. Bath run an MA in Responsible Management which stresses ethics and sustainability in business employability issues e.g. intercultural competence or managing cultural diversity are seen as valuable skills by employers
  • offer courses at times suitable to the students e.g. a one week intensive or evenings stress that your units will enhance the attractiveness of other subjects e.g. Engineering or Geography might attract more female students with the addition of a linguistic or intercultural dimension
  • be flexible by offering units to students on other programmes. It can be hugely beneficial in terms of status to offer a 'big splash' lecture or module that can be taken by large numbers e.g. 'the globalisation debate'. Being able to teach large groups of students may be looked on favourably in some quarters
  • offer English versions of foreign language units either classes or digests for first years. This could help to get a toehold into another discipline
  • consider offering electives of 20 credits that adds value but doesn't take up much space in the curriculum
  • be aware that some students are studying vocational subjects, such as business, because they feel they should, not because it is their primary interest, thus they may be very interested in what you have to offer especially if it connects with their prior study or academic interests

Other issues raised by David were:

  • students are not so interested in 'old' models of Area Studies but the universities have been quite slow to adapt to the demands of the changing marketplace
  • it is now seen as desirable to have an international dimension to the curriculum that is coherent and accreditation bodies such as EQUIS recognise this
  • institutions now have international strategies but it is not always easy to embed internationalisation into the curriculum. Why not an institution-wide Area Studies programme as well as an institution-wide language programme, where the former does not necessarily involve learning a language?

In the ensuing discussion session the following points were made:

  • redundancy is a key driver for the marketing of both courses and staff across the institution
  • internal redeployment is possible where staff are multidisciplinary
  • team-building is a way of pushing through changes (a group managing change is more likely to succeed than an individual)
  • be proactive rather than reactive
  • find an influential supporter
  • change names of posts to reflect the multidisciplinarity of staff
  • focus on skills that are generic to Area Studies
  • be open to non-standard entry
  • be aware of your market - some areas do not recruit from schools, thus packs designed for marketing must be adaptable
  • there is a need to create a better sense of community among areas in order to share ideas and work together on generic issues
  • in the US courses in Defence Studies and Conflict Resolution are gaining in popularity but have been slow to gain recognition here

The Subject Centre Marketing Packs (Short version)

Both the Area Studies and Languages branches of the Subject Centre have been working on the development of materials that can be disseminated across departments and used for marketing purposes. All languages departments will receive a box with materials donated by Embassies together with a powerpoint presentation on CD and some notes on marketing strategies. For Area Studies materials will be distributed electronically and can be adapted for each area and audience. The PowerPoint presentation (in draft form) is generic, but will eventually contain information relevant to each area and can be adapted to individual purposes.

Comments and suggestions on this will be most welcome and a final draft version should be available in the summer.

Colleagues may wish to use the current draft in the meantime

Download PowerPoint 14576 Kb

Download Zip Compressed Data 3599 Kb

Group Discussions

The day ended with small group discussions in which each group was invited to consider ways in which they could develop marketing strategies and what help might be needed.


Group 1

  • explore the possibilities for attracting external clients (i.e. from other departments)
  • take the opportunity to build on language as a means of cultural awareness
  • find new ways of looking at literature/films etc. for what they can tell us about another culture, e.g. business ethics can be taught through literary texts
  • use intercultural competence as a way into other fields e.g. business
  • teach students about culture through business

Group 2

  • do market research - e.g. find out why do so many students want to do psychology?
  • emphasise multidisciplinarity
  • seek advocacy for Area Studies at a national level (good representation on UCAS, inform careers teachers, use the media, show employers that your graduates deliver skills that they value)

Group 3

  • need to raise awareness of area studies among potential students
  • don't rely on RAE scores as these are often put into the disciplines not into Area Studies exploit moments of media interest
  • stress the value of Area Studies to professional mobility
  • ensure that careers officers in schools/colleges are well-informed about Area Studies
  • use students to get the message across on open days and on visits to their 6th Form colleges
  • work hard to win institutional support
  • try to work with centralised marketing as they have the resources that departments do not look to mature students - career changes, women seeking a return to study/work

Group 4

  • don't compete for the small pool of students but work together to increase the pool
  • collaborate with other institutions to share materials/courses
  • develop a schools liaison initiative to raise awareness in schools
  • produce a magazine (non-academic) that will appeal to potential students
  • put on mini-conferences that relate to the 'A' level syllabus
  • be realistic about the influence of geopolitical circumstances (which are unavoidable)
  • offer an essay prize to schools/colleges
  • experiment with new aspects of the curriculum


Overall the day produced some excellent opportunities for discussion and some positive ideas on how to address some of the issues raised. It was very rewarding to see colleagues working together across disciplines and we hope that this will continue over the coming months as the marketing pack for Area Studies takes shape. The Subject Centre is looking for ways of supporting an emerging Area Studies community and is planning to set up an Area Studies Network which will provide a forum for discussion (both electronic and face-to-face) of key themes for the field. Meanwhile we invite you all to stay in touch with us and to contribute any further thoughts and ideas on the outcomes of this event. We look forward to hearing from you and to working with you in the future.