Images: Alamy and Instagram. Collage: VICE staff
When model and influencer Ambar Driscoll took to Instagram on A-Level results day to promote the University of Hull, she probably wasn’t expecting the backlash she faced from her followers.
The problem wasn’t that the post was an advert. Most Instagram users understand that sponsored posts are an important income stream for content creators. However, much as Lauren Goodger definitely didn’t try that cyanide drink, Driscoll didn’t actually go to the University of Hull. In fact, she studied at the University of Exeter, on the opposite end of the country.
Driscoll’s followers expressed concern that the post, which encouraged them to apply to Hull through clearing, might influence impressionable teens to apply to a university not suited to them. They branded it unethical and morally wrong. (Ambar Driscoll and the University of Hull declined to comment for this article).
But Driscoll isn’t alone in partnering with a university, in fact these relationships between social media influencers and UK universities are becoming increasingly common. The rise of EduTube – a branch of YouTube in which vloggers such as Ruby Granger and Jack Edwards, who have 200,000 Instagram followers between them, showcase study tips and university life – is too good of a marketing opportunity for universities to miss.
It might sound ideal but there’s a danger that these influencers present a false perception of university life to their young followers. You only have to take a look at the Caroline Calloway scandal to see just how easy it is to portray a romanticised version of reality on social media, and it’s not unreasonable to question whether this might be heightened when influencers are being paid to portray universities positively.
Benedict Holmes, former vice-director of Durham University’s Nightline, an anonymous listening service for students, tells VICE News: “I think in a university environment, influencers have a really mixed impact. Some content can be encouraging, showcasing the variety and diversity of student life and presenting genuinely useful tips for study. On the flip side, there is a real problem with unrealistic expectations, and the destabilising effect this can have on student wellbeing. We all work at different paces and being told about a ‘right’ or ‘most effective’ way of studying can contribute to feelings of inadequacy and increase imposter syndrome.”
He continues: “This might be made worse where universities are actively endorsing this content – it’s one thing for a ‘random’ person on the internet to tell you how you should be working, and quite another for them to become a mouthpiece for the university.”
These unrealistic expectations become even more prevalent when influencers are endorsing universities they didn’t attend, and it certainly isn’t uncommon for young people to put blind faith into influencers.
Clinical psychologist Dr. Oliver Sindall suggests this is based on three factors: attractiveness, trustworthiness and similarity. “When I have asked young people why they believe certain social influencers are making the right decisions in terms of life choices, relationships and products, they will often talk about the amount of followers that influencer has on Instagram,” he says. “This is based on the principle that if so many others value the opinion of an influencer, and adhere to their judgements, they must be trustworthy and honest.”
He adds: “The perceived credibility and trust that young people place in social media influencers has resulted in them having a greater impact than traditional advertising in the under-25 age group.”
It’s one thing to endorse a product you haven’t used yourself, but to promote a life-changing decision to your followers is a different matter. This begs the question of whether relationships between universities and influencers should be considered more than just a straightforward financial transaction in the way other brand partnerships are.
But blogger and influencer, Grace Bee, argues that “these partnerships are exactly the same as other brand partnerships. Universities are businesses at the end of the day and so they market themselves as such, and I think it would be crazy for any business to ignore the reach and influence of online creators at the moment.”
Grace was one of many influencers who participated in a social media campaign run by Anglia Ruskin University on A-Level results day.
She says: “For me personally, it was a business transaction. However I’m quite picky with the brands I work with and I would never promote a brand I didn’t believe in. Although I didn’t study at Anglia Ruskin, I think my time in further education was really formative so I was more than happy to promote it to my followers.”
Jasmine, 29, attended the University of Nottingham and now runs a popular Instagram blog. She agrees that partnering with Anglia Ruskin was “a financial transaction” but adds, “I won’t promote anything I don’t have a genuine connection or belief in”.
A spokesperson for Anglia Ruskin University tells VICE News: “We strongly believe in widening participation and a high proportion of our students are the first in their family to attend university. Our Instagram partners talk about how their university experiences and qualifications have helped to transform their own lives – sometimes in quite radical ways. These posts, all written by the individuals themselves and clearly marked with an ‘ad’ tag, focus on the wider benefits of considering a university education.”
Model and content creator, Aliyah Rahal, who has over 56,000 followers on Instagram, also participated in the campaign. “I never accept a partnership I don’t research first,” she says. “I would never suggest a product or service I didn’t enjoy myself or believe in. This is how I make a living and my full-time job so gaining and maintaining the trust of my followers is extremely important to me.”
It seems the impact of these university-influencer partnerships is determined by the integrity of the influencer – given that they research the business and agree with their principles, committing to a paid partnership with a university isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If anything, encouraging teenagers to pursue higher education is a positive message.
Dr. Jeffrey M. Cohen, a clinical psychologist at the University of Columbia, agrees that while young people are more susceptible to influencer marketing, this vulnerability is most prominent in “those under 12” who “may not readily detect what is influencer advertising nor have yet developed the abilities to critically reflect on influencer advertising”.
In which case, university applicants should know better than to blindly follow the advice of influencers. Holmes says: “Whatever your view on it, the ‘marketisation’ of higher education is here to stay. Influencer marketing is just the latest in a series of advertising innovations. Like with all marketing, it needs to be done in a way that recognises universities’ positions as public bodies and their responsibilities for student wellbeing.”
Dr. Sindall adds: “Ideally, influencers and companies should be thinking about the potential impact of what they are promoting. But if you have thousands of young followers, is it really a bad thing to promote the pursuit of higher education?”
Given the sustained popularity of Instagram, it seems a natural progression for universities to move into new areas of marketing that are popular with their target age bracket. Perhaps then, it comes down to not believing everything we see on social media – whether that be body-image expectations, branded content or university advertisements.