The University Brand

As a newly graduated young adult 5 months into her first ‘proper job’ in the ‘real world’ I was disproportionately excited when provided with a Tablet. Having duly dragged  my work email widget onto the home screen, synced my calendar and updated all work documents I proceeded to the important bit – downloading games. I’ve  flung some birds around, raced cars and explored whole new worlds. Then I discovered a logo-identifying challenge; just how much have Golden Arches, animal silhouettes and quirky squiggles  invaded my psyche?

Coca-Cola – Inevitable.

Unilever – Do-able.

Kodak – Getting Harder.

University of Oxford – WAIT.

Brand Identity (OED) – A set of attributes designed to distinguish a particular firm, product or line with the intention of promoting awareness and loyalty on the part of consumers.

Times Higher Education has published an article discussing British universities’ increasing obsession with branding – the sort of differentiation/consumer-benefit-realisation/promise-delivery = customer loyalty ‘stuff’ that is a mainstay of our capitalising society.

The problem? Universities are meant to transcend this slickly-grubby reality – bastions of intellectual integrity upon pedestals of pedagogic granite. However, a narrative of marketisation has overwhelmed higher education in Britain, increased student fees the most notable manifestation of changes that have rendered universities ever more vulnerable to and aware of competition.

Oxford is not recognisable simply because its heritage is noble and romantically gothic, rooted in good ol’ British history.  No. It has a brand, strict guidelines, large-scale strategies for inseminating a particular image of itself that, paradoxically, presents itself as effortlessly superior. Not one university can rest on its laurels.

It is easy to be disheartened. Is nothing sacred, even knowledge? It is easy to rest an elbow-patch on the table and mourn the pounds disappearing into advertising agencies’ pockets, pounds which could extend a library, provide better sports facilities, fund laboratories, ensure the toxins of modern PR do not undermine the pursuit of truth and insight. And yet, universities are nothing without people to do the thinking.

Potential students must be provided with a USP, existing students must experience that USP and alumni must feel they have benefited enough to remain loyal and proud of their association. An umbrella-identity must inform everything – universities are huge, multifaceted conglomerations that increasingly exist on a global scale. Spending time on questions of purpose, style and mission are not reductionist ploys, but important and complex issues that can be usefully codified with a brand identity. It is reasonable for universities to want to promote their activity, draw people in and share their work with as wide a group as possible.

What is sad, however, is the language. If universities are going to act like businesses then students quickly become referred to as consumers. They become passive sponges to marketing guff and not proactive partners in learning. This should not be. It is one thing for universities to concern themselves with branding, another for their product to become nothing but a packaged up, branded ‘brain-power’ for which refund policies apply and students do nothing but queue up with a debit card.

Students are no longer just monks in robes, or upper class men in matching  tail coats. As higher educational institutions, student cohorts and  further education opportunities diversify, so too should universities’ approach to what they can and want to offer uniquely. But branding should only ever act as a doorway, a mechanism with which students can usefully decide where they want to pursue a degree, something with which they can engage.

Kate Brittain