Since the mid-1970s, the higher education system in the UK has massified. Over this period, the government policy drivers for higher education have shifted towards a homogenised rationale, linking higher education to the economic well-being of the country. The massification of higher education has involved a widening of participation from traditional students to new and diverse student cohorts with differing information needs. The increased positioning of students as consumers by higher education means the student choice process has become complex. Drawing on a recently conferred doctorate, this article asks whether the messages sent by institutions about the motivation for undertaking a degree have changed during the recent period of massification of UK higher education. It asks how such changes are reflected, overtly or in coded form, in the institutional pre-entry ‘prospectus’ documents aimed at students. Taking a discourse-historical approach, the work identifies six periods of discourse change between 1976 and 2013, analysing prospectuses from four case-study institutions of different perceived status. The research finds that the materials homogenise gradually over the period and there is a concordant concealment of the differential status, purpose and offer of the institutions, alongside an increase in the functional importance of the coded signalling power of the differential prestige of undergraduate degrees within the UK. This research’s finding that the documents produced by institutions have become increasingly difficult to differentiate highlights equity issues in provision of marketing in terms of widening participation and fair access aims.
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