What’s your brand?

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My MBA graduation, April 2012
Institute of Education academic dress as modelled by me at my MBA graduation ceremony, 4 April 2012

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!

Post-Soviet education, part 2: Uzbekistan

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Here are a couple of stories about cotton-rich Uzbekistan.

The first, from a blog called Why Nations Fail, looks at the phenomenon of children being forced to pick cotton when they should be in school. Below is an extract from the blog post specific to Uzbekistan:

… For starters, take Uzbekistan. Why does it have 1/15 of the US income per capita? Perhaps it is because of “human capital” — Uzbekis having less education and education and skills? Well there’s a surprise, Uzbekistan has close to complete primary and secondary school enrollment, and close to 100% literacy. But look a bit deeper, and you’ll see something a little unusual going on in Uzbeki schools.

The basis of Uzbekistan’s economy is cotton, which makes up 45% of exports. The cotton bolls start to ripen and are ready to be picked in early September, at about the same time that children return to school. But as soon as the children arrive the schools are emptied of 2.7 million children (2006 figures) who are sent by the government to pick the cotton. Teachers, instead of being instructors, became labor recruiters. In the words of Gulnaz, a mother of two of these children:

“At the beginning of each school year, approximately at the beginning of September, the classes in school are suspended, and instead of classes children are sent to the cotton harvest. Nobody asks for the consent of parents. They don’t have weekend holidays [during the harvesting season]. If a child is for any reason left at home, his teacher or class curator comes over and denounces the parents. They assign a plan to each child, from 20 to 60 kg per day depending on the child’s age. If a child fails to fulfill this plan then next morning he is lambasted in front of the whole class.”

Children in Uzbekistan bringing in their cotton quota (from WHY NATIONS FAIL, original from EJ Foundation).

The harvest lasts for two months. Rural children lucky enough to be assigned to farms close to home can walk or are bused to work. Children farther away or from urban areas have to sleep in the sheds or storehouses with the machinery and animals. There are no toilets or kitchens. Children have to bring their own food for lunch. In the spring, school is closed for compulsory hoeing, weeding, and transplanting.

So school or no school, children aren’t learning all that much in Uzbeki schools. They are instead being coerced to work. This type of coercion is actually all too common, and is indicative of the sorts of institutions that not only fail to impart human capital to children, but are at the root of much more widespread economic and social failure. “

(c) Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson

A more unusual perspective for those of us based in Europe/North America comes from South Korea. The Korea Times reports on Uzbekistan’s efforts to emulate South Korea’s experience in expanding educational opportunities and improving quality. This arose following an educational conference in Uzbekistan this February attended by a number of Korean universities. Here is an excerpt from the article, entitled Uzbekistan all out to reform education:

In an ambitious effort to upgrade and reform its educational system, the Uzbek government, under the initiative of President Islam Karimov, hosted an international educational conference last month: “Fostering a Well Educated and Intellectually Advanced Generation – A Critical Prerequisite for Sustainable Development and Modernization of a Country.” …

Addressing the global forum, President Karimov emphasized that the “National Program for Training of Specialists” his government adopted 15 years ago “stands as an inseparable and integral part of our own Uzbek model of economic and political reforms based on a step-by-step and evolutionary principle of building a new society in the country.”

“The program is aimed at completely rejecting stereotypes and dogmas of the communist ideology imposed in the past, consolidating democratic values in the minds of the people, and firstly, among the young generation,” he said.

The program features 12-year universal compulsory and free education via a “9+3” plan, namely nine years of study in a secondary school and the next three years in specialized professional colleges and academic lyceums where students obtain vocational training in the two to three specialties demanded by the labor market, he explained.

Intellectual treasure

Noting that more than 1,500 new professional colleges and academic lyceums have been built, Karimov said, “We attach great importance to giving pupils not only a broad-scale knowledge and vocational skills, but also to compulsory learning foreign languages.”

“This is the most important condition for active communication of our young people with their counterparts from foreign countries, and allows them to get an extensive knowledge of everything that is going on in the modern world and enjoy a huge world of intellectual treasure.”

The higher institutions play an important role in reforming the educational process and training highly qualified personnel required in the labor market, he said. During the last years their number has increased twice and now there are more than 230,000 students studying at 59 universities and other higher educational institutions, he added.

“The annual expenditure for reforming and developing education in Uzbekistan makes up 10-12 percent of GDP and their share of the spending side of the government’s budget exceeds 35 percent, and this by itself serves as confirmation of the huge attention being paid to this sphere,” he said.

Article is (c) The Korea Times.

Karimov concluded that “The new generation, the educated youth who are free of any vestiges of the past are today turning into a vital driving force for democratization, liberalization and renewal, and the confident growth of the country.”

I will leave you to make your own conclusion, particularly contrasted to the cotton picking story, about whether Karimov’s words sound genuine or not.

Post-Soviet education, part 1: Russia

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By happy coincidence, I’ve read a number of articles recently looking at education in a number of the post-Soviet countries. Below is an interesting story about Russia, written just before Putin’s re-“election” as President, and it also touches on higher education.

The story is (c) Ria Novosti.

Putin praises Russia’s educational revolution

An “educational revolution” is transforming Russia’s society and economy, Russian Prime Minister and presidential hopeful Vladimir Putinwrote in an article published on Monday in the Izvestia daily.

“Russia’s main hope is a high level of education, especially for our young people,” Putin wrote.

Fifty-seven percent of Russians between 25 and 35 years old have higher educations, a level matched only by Japan, South Korea and Canada, Putin said in the article.

“Demand for education is skyrocketing” in the 15-25 age group, with 80 percent of young men and women aspiring to or receiving higher education, he wrote.

Even if the Russian economy is at times unable to absorb so many professionals, “there is no way back,” Putin wrote. “It’s not people who should try to adjust themselves to the existing structure of economy and labor market – it’s economy that should change to allow citizens with high level of education and high demands to find a decent job.”

While the Russian constitution guarantees the right to higher education free-of-charge, the lackluster showing of Russian universities in recent global rankings has triggered a spate of national discussion.

Not a single Russian institution is included in the top 200 of the 2011-2012 Times of London Higher Education rankings. Only two Russian institutions have been included in the rating, Moscow State University in the top 300 and Saint Petersburg State University in the top 400.

Foreign rankings have been repeatedly criticized by Russia’s top education officials and university staff as lacking fairness, objectivity and transparency. Education Minister Andrei Fursenko has said he believes a lack of information about programs and graduates from Russian universities provided to rating agencies is partly to blame for their poor showing.

In August, Putin called for the urgent modernization of Russia’s higher education system so that it meets the demands of today. He promised to allocate some 70 billion rubles ($2.4 billion) to create an innovative educational infrastructure in Russian universities in the next five years.

Higher education budget expenditures have more than tripled since 2005, reaching 390 billion rubles (almost $14.5 billion) in 2011.

Happy International Women’s Day! С международным женским днём!

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Today provides a great opportunity to publicise some articles published over recent days highlighting both the advances made by women and examining some of the factors that still hold women back in the world.

Soviet-era women's day poster

First, women in higher education:

  • The Guardian’s Higher Education Network is discussing  women in higher education who have inspired you on the website and on LinkedIn: what a great topic! The discussions are still open so please add your own contributions;
  • Thumbs up to my employer, the University of Oxford, for its press release today showcasing videos with various women working at Oxford. One of the videos features Dr Alice Prochaska, my former boss at Somerville College, which itself was founded to give women the opportunity to undertake higher education at a time when they were excluded from membership of the University;
  • On a less positive note, the Huffington Post discusses the lack of senior women across the UK higher education sector;
  • Michelle Gander of the Open University – a fellow graduate of the MBA in Higher Education Management) blogs about higher education, women and careers and recently published some interesting statistics about gender diversity in senior roles.

Looking at the situation of women more generally, I’d recommend the following:

  • Polly Toynbee, one of my favourite Guardian journalists, laments the persistent lack of equality for women in the UK. The title ‘Calm down, dear’ comes from something the prime minister David Cameron said to a woman MP once, which did not make him popular amongst his female colleagues or voters;
  • The struggle for gender equality in Tajikistan is stymied by persistently high levels of poverty. Eurasia Net reports, for example, on how poverty is encouraging early marriages, which frequently has negative implications for women;
  • A short report about Kyrgyzstan’s president Almazbek Atambayev who has congratulated women in the country – whilst also, in an honest assessment, acknowledging their “economic hardship”.
How women's day has gone from being about "demonstrations and meetings" to "flowers and presents" (c) Rian.ru

So a mixed picture for a day when we celebrate women: much to applaud, but still much work to be done.

I’ll leave you with the words of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev who sent his wishes for 8 March whilst launching Mother’s Day as a new holiday in the country (interestingly, Kazakhstan still maintains a Soviet-era award system for women who have multiple children. Not sure what that says about anything but just wanted to note it here):

I heartily wish all women of Kazakhstan to be tough on the one hand and tender on the other. Family is the basis of the state and it rests on your hands as you bring up our children to make them intelligent patriots and knowledgeable people – it is all in the hands of women as well. The public policy is also in the hands of women and the decision-making also comes from you, so the country can not do without you. Therefore, you must be healthy and happy.

Nazarbayev University: the Oxford of Kazakhstan?

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Sorry for the silence since the last post (I try to post once a week) – I have been using all my spare time to complete a full draft of my Tajik study abroad paper. Given the wealth of information I received, you can imagine that it has taken some time to analyse all the data and then translate that into findings for the paper. I will post some of my initial findings soon, and welcome comments and feedback (preferably by the end of March when I have to submit my final paper!).

Today’s post is about a university with grand ambitions to become the Oxford (or Harvard, or Cambridge – post in your own analogy here) of Kazakhstan.

I’ve been following the rise of Nazarbayev University (NU) for a while now, and my fascination for its radical mission is ever growing. Why is the mission radical? Well, have you ever come across any other university with so much state support (not just funding but also other forms of support, such as a commitment to academic freedom) that has declared that it will be world-leading in such a short space of time? For a first-hand account of NU’s ambition, it’s well worth reading an article by the University’s President Shigeo Katsu published in the UK’s Times Higher Education magazine in April 2011.

Last summer, I had the privilege of meeting Dr Kadisha Dairova, Vice-President for Academic, Student and International Affairs at NU. She reinforced the importance of quality and research excellence to the success of the university, and outlined some of the partnerships that have already been established with the likes of Harvard, Cambridge, University College London, National University of Singapore and others to assist with the design and implementation of the first degree-bearing courses.

Dr Dairova also stressed the importance of high admissions requirements and similarly high levels of financial support to ensure access is needs-blind. NU has clear vision for their graduates, and will expect the following from them:

  • high quality professional knowledge;
  • both theoretical and practical skills;
  • an understanding of the needs of the country;
  • an ability to contribute to their profession and their community;
  • a well-rounded personality: as Dr Dairova said, “just a good engineer will not make a good leader”.

The diagram below highlights the most commonly used words in NU’s vision and mission: the larger words are the ones that appear most often.

Nazarbayev University's vision and mission
Nazarbayev University's vision and mission

If you want to see what NU actually looks like, check out this report on President Nazarbayev’s recent visit to the main campus in Astana, capital of Kazakhstan. The report also features a video of Nazarbayev touring his eponymous university – including visiting a student room as further evidence of the university’s “all-mod-cons” attitude.

In trying to emulate a university of Oxford or Harvard’s standing, NU is making significant financial investment (which also extends to a series of Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools which are designed to be feeders to the university in future) as well as devising high-level partnerships with international universities. But will this be enough to create the academic excellence that is demanded?

In the case of Oxford, academic excellence is partly borne of its long history. Nazarbayev University doesn’t yet have 900 years of teaching and research (in their many forms) to draw on, but what it does share is a determined commitment to attract the very best students and staff. Whilst it might take NU more years than it would prefer to establish itself internationally, I would argue that it is going about its business in the right way. Aim high and invest, and watch this space…

Education and human rights in Uzbekistan, part 2

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The letter from academics at London Metropolitan University that I featured yesterday clearly ruffled some feathers at the university. In response, the Vice Chancellor of London Metropolitan University wrote this reply in the UK’s Guardian newspaper (thanks to David Wolfson for spotting this):

Uzbekistan projects

Thursday 16 February 2012 21.00 GMT

David Hardman et al (Letters, 14 February) correctly point out that London Metropolitan University is proud of its dedication to social justice. There are more ways, however, of addressing injustices in or elsewhere Uzbekistan than by severance of all communications.

Iran shows where that approach has not worked. The university is involved in Uzbekistan with a translation project, funded by the British Council, and an academic quality-assurance project, funded by the EU. In past years we trained human rights defenders in Uzbekistan, funded by the Foreign Office. We also receive international students from Uzbekistan. We believe these things contribute to dialogue between two very different societies. They build skills and connections, without lending legitimacy to regimes or military actions.

Presumably, if we should not have connections with Uzbekistan, we should not connect with other countries in the same human-rights band, such as China, India and Russia.

Professor Malcolm Gillies
Vice-chancellor, London Metropolitan University

The Guardian’s website is www.guardian.co.uk

Emma adds: Suggestions on a postcard (well, the electronic equivalent is to leave a  comment below) for what will happen next at London Met…

Education and human rights in Uzbekistan

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This is a repost of an article originally published by EurasiaNet.org, available here.

British Academics Slam Education Links with Uzbekistan

EurasiaNet’s home is http://www.eurasianet.org.