Yesterday, I attended my MBA graduation ceremony (I completed the MBA last year but the ceremonies only take place in April). My university, the Institute of Education, University of London, put on a great day and the Director gave a congratulatory speech that managed to be motivational whilst grounded in pragmatism, a difficult feat to pull off.
My MBA was not your typical finance-and-business course, but specialised in higher education management. So whilst we covered finance, it was geared towards higher education – how to interpret university financial statements, understanding resource allocation mechanisms, what a temporary creative cross-subsidy means and how to implement one and so on. The MBA also allowed us to explore higher education specific topics, such as managing teaching and research and managing the student experience. It was hard, hard work to study part-time whilst working full-time but well worth it, not just for the knowledge obtained but the networks I now have and the skills I have developed. I’d be very happy to discuss the course with any readers who might consider an application – just leave me a comment or email me.
During his speech, the Director spoke about the Institute (affectionately known as “IoE”) and its early 20th century foundation as a teacher training college for London County Council. Today, it offers more Master’s degrees in education-related subjects than any other university in the UK, a range of other graduate and doctoral courses, and still offers high quality teaching qualifications. So whilst the IoE is rooted in its past, it has adapted and diversified to meet contemporary needs. In corporate speak, the IoE has a clear brand that it is becoming increasingly sophisticated about communicating to its own students and staff as well as the outside world.
I think branding in the higher education sector is a fascinating subject. It uses a concept taken from the profit-making private sector and applies it to a sector that is, these days, semi-public and semi-private but more importantly, is influenced by the students and staff that are part of the institution. Paul Temple (coincidentally, one of the MBA course directors!) makes this point in his article University branding:
So I draw a distinction between branding – which, in our case, is what people come to think about a university as a result of what it does and what its staff and students have achieved over the years; it is slow to change and comes from inside – and branding work, which can come from the outside, can make a marginal difference in some cases, but usually has little impact on the things that matter.
Paul Temple (2011): University branding, Perspectives: Policy and Practice in Higher Education, 15:4, 113-116
(Let me know if you would like a copy of the article – it’s an entertaining read)
Universities are also hugely diverse places and this adds to the challenge of trying to create a clear message about what it is trying to do. For the IoE, this is made by simpler by its focus on education and related social sciences, but for multi-faculty institutions with (for example) full-time and part-time students, sciences and arts courses, face-to-face and online learning, this message can be much more difficult to find and talk about.
As a result, the impact that branding can have in a university is unlikely to be the same as branding in the corporate world. Changing a university’s logo is superficial compared to the influence that its people (staff, students etc), its history, and its offerings (teaching/research mix, interaction with different communities – local, national, regional, international) have.
The Guardian’s Higher Education Network commissioned a roundtable discussion recently about this very subject. Contributors to the discussion agreed with my view that a logo change doesn’t make a big difference, but argued that it is possible for universities to agree on core values, and that students and staff can be involved to help reinforce the brand. For example, this could mean featuring student case studies in a prospectus (there were some in my graduation ceremony brochure too, including a testimony from a scholarship student from Tajikistan that aimed to tell you about the importance of the scholarship to her ability to contribute to the future of Tajikistan… oh and by the way, here’s how to donate to the scholarship fund…).
These points about branding are not just applicable to UK universities. I have written before on this blog about Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan and how it is positioning itself as a centre of international excellence. Nazarbayev’s challenge is about both brand and reputation (not to be conflated, as Paul Temple will tell you). Other universities in Central Asia may not be aiming as high or as internationally as Nazarbayev but the growth of private providers in the region and the increasing number of students enrolling in higher education provides a good impetus for universities to understand their brand and consider whether they feel it is a good reflection of their past, their present and their future.
I’d like to end by reinforcing the point that a university’s people are major influencers in how its brand is perceived by others. Messages from students and academics come across as more authentic than slogans and campaigns dreamed up by marketeers (slick and effective as they may be). On a micro-level, I have contributed towards the Institute of Education’s brand by sharing my very positive experiences of studying for an MBA in Higher Education Management in this post. Students at other universities have done an even better job of “selling” their institution – just watch the video below made by 172 students at the University of Québec-Montréal (Canada), which has had over 10 million hits on YouTube. You can’t fail to be cheered by it!