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Brands of nonsense

October 31st, 2014

That’s the title of a piece of mine the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a little while ago. It’s paywalled but they have graciously given me permission to republish it here.

A little while ago, the University of Warwick was in the news for all the wrong reasons. Its longstanding legal firm, SGH Martineau, put up a blog post suggesting that universities should take action against “insubordinate” academics with “outspoken opinions.” The firm stressed the importance of making an example of offenders whose academic work was “brilliant,” lest other employees become tempted to emulate them.

Unfortunately for Warwick, this suggestion was made at precisely the time the university was seeking to remove an insubordinate professor, whose alleged offenses included “sighing” and “irony during job interviews”, though it appears his real offense was criticism of the British government’s higher-education policy.

The law firm’s post was couched in terms of the possibility of damage to the university’s “brand.” Universities have always been rightly concerned about their reputations. But the conversion in recent years to the language of branding has reached a fever pitch. Of course, in Warwick’s case, both the proposal to muzzle academics and the marketing-speak used to justify it did enough damage to offset, for some time, the efforts of its entire central-administration communications team, which employs almost 30 people, not to mention similar personnel in various schools and departments.

In Australia, Monash University proudly announced this year that it was the first organization in the world to acquire a “brand” top-level domain name—that is, an Internet address ending in “.monash” rather than the previous “monash.edu.au.” This trivial change cost $180,000, plus an annual fee of $25,000, and is part of the university’s expensively maintained “brand identity policy.”

In America, the University of Pennsylvania was an early adopter of this approach. In 2002 the Pennsylvania Gazette celebrated its centenary with a history titled “Building Penn’s Brand.” What might Penn’s most eminent sociologist, Erving Goffman (author of The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life), have made of this adoption of the language of image and “brand”?

Many American universities now have branding policies, and some affirm an unqualified commitment to the associated marketing ideology. The University of Florida, for example states on its website:

“The importance of having a clear, recognizable brand can never be overstated. It defines us, separates us and communicates our relevance and value. It is especially important in an environment as vast and decentralized as the University of Florida. Thousands of messages leave the university every day, and each represents an opportunity to enhance—or fragment—our image. By maintaining consistent standards, we capitalize on the enormous volume of communications we generate and we present an image to the world of a multifaceted, but unified, institution.”

That statement summarizes all the key points of the ideology of branding. First there is the emphasis on image without any reference to an underlying reality. Second there is the assumption that the university should be viewed as a corporate institution rather than as a community. Third there is the desire to subordinate the efforts of individual scholars in research, extension, and community engagement to the enhancement of the corporate image. And finally there is the emphasis on distinctiveness and separateness. The University of Florida does not want to seem part of a global community of higher education, but rather as a competitor in a crowded marketplace.

Before considering this process further, we need some context. The authority on the history of the corporation and of brands is Alfred D. Chandler, whose books Strategy and Structure: Chapters in the History of the American Industrial Enterprise (MIT Press, 1962), The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business (Harvard University Press, 1977), and Scale and Scope: The Dynamics of Industrial Capitalism (Harvard University Press, 1990) are the definitive studies of the rise of the managerial corporation.

Chandler emphasizes the emergence of packaged and branded goods. Until the late 19th century, products like foodstuffs were sold in bulk by wholesalers, then measured out by retailers to individual customers. At every stage there were opportunities to increase profits by passing off a cheaper alternative for the good being sold. Shopkeepers’ reputations were the primary warranty. In the increasingly urban and mobile environment of the late 19th century, reputation, never a fully effective seal of quality, became even less so.

Branded products provided a solution. Now it was possible for consumers to repeatedly buy the same brand of product at various stores. The brand was a guarantee of consistent quality, not because of the trustworthiness of the corporation (of which the buyers would typically know nothing), but because its value depended on consistency and quality.

Consistency was the more important of the two. A low-quality product, provided that it was consistently adequate and appropriately priced, could benefit just as much from a brand as a higher-quality, more expensive alternative could. Indeed, the wealthy were the last to embrace branded products, instead patronizing bespoke tailors and personal providers of food and other services long after the middle and working classes were used to doing their shopping at Macy’s and A&P.

The great marketing discovery of the 20th century, pioneered by the advertising titan J. Walter Thompson, was that brands could do much more than guarantee a consistent level of objective quality. With the right advertising, a brand could come to embody connotations of all kinds, unrelated to the qualities of the product to which it was attached. Femininity or masculinity, luxury or solid good sense, excitement or security—all of these and more are part of “image.”

A third form of brand value arises when there are strong forces for customer “loyalty,” amounting, in some cases, to “lock-in.” For example, anyone who wants to use computers of designs descended from the IBM PC has little choice but to buy Microsoft operating systems like Windows.

And now we come to what may be the most striking feature of branding in higher education. Universities are corporate bodies, but they predate commercial corporations by many centuries. Long before the advent of packaged and branded goods, universities were certifying the quality of their students through the awarding of degrees.

Many criticisms of corporate branding apply equally to university degrees, and much of the voluminous literature on “credentialism” could be translated into the language of branding. The aim of degrees is, after all, to certify quality in the sense that a student has completed a course of study and acquired the associated knowledge and reasoning skills. And, as with brands that involve monopoly power, many degrees gain value from the fact that they are required for entry to particular professions. On the other hand, and with notable exceptions like the M.B.A., there has been little consistent effort to promote “brand image” to potential employers. Like a 19th-century brand, the degree has, in large part, gained its value from graduates rather than vice versa.

The rise of corporate-style branding has gone hand in hand with the devaluation of degrees through grade inflation. Grades in the A range have become the norm at leading universities. Reports that Princeton might roll back attempts to cap the proportion of A’s at 35 percent cite administrators’ fears that the policy discourages potential applicants and students’ complaints that it hurts their chances of getting jobs, fellowships, or spots in graduate or professional schools.

The “brand value” or “brand equity” of a company can be estimated as the intangible capital, beyond the company’s actual earnings, that may arise, as Chandler suggests, in three ways:

* The company is known to produce goods and services of a higher quality than competitors of similar cost (or similar quality at lower cost). Remember? That’s the 19th-century notion of brand.

* The brand reflects intangible attributes, through advertising, in the minds of consumers. That’s the early 20th century notion.

* A brand’s component products work best together or with those made by partner brands. That’s the late-20th-century lock-in notion.

It is appropriate, therefore, that the world’s most valuable brand is Apple, because it hits the trifecta. It is widely perceived as the highest-quality and most consistently innovative maker of computing devices. Its products carry a cachet of sophistication emphasized by the famous “I’m a Mac … and I’m a PC” ads. And (except for a brief period in the 1990s when Macintosh “clones” were marketed on a small scale) anyone who wants to use Apple operating systems has to buy an Apple device, and vice versa.

How do those concepts apply to universities and, in particular, to undergraduate education, which remains the core business of most of these institutions?

The 19th-century notion of quality is established in the minds of students, parents, and just about everybody else. In fact, it is so well established that rankings of leading universities have barely changed since the hierarchy was established, in the second half of the 19th century. A blog post by the sociologist Kieran Healy on Crooked Timber compares a ranking produced in 1911 with the most recent U.S. News rankings and finds a close correlation (except that elite private universities, as a group, have improved their status relative to state flagships).

In that sense, then, university brands are strong. But brand relativities that endure regardless of the competence of university leaders, the vagaries of scholars and departments, and the efforts of marketing departments are not really of much interest.

None of this is to say that there are no differences in quality among those captured by these very stable rankings. At any given time, the quality of departments in any university will vary widely. Some will be making great strides in teaching and research. Others will be riven by internal divisions, or wedded to outdated and discredited approaches to pedagogy and research methodology. But there is no way to discover such things from branding exercises at the university level.

Key branding efforts focus on intangibles. In this respect, university branding has been an embarrassing failure both by the industrial standards of the advertising sector and by the intellectual standards that universities are supposed to uphold. For example, virtually every Australian university has adopted (replacing the Latinate motto that used to adorn its crest) a branding slogan: “Know more. Do more.” “Where brilliant begins”. Good luck trying to match a particular slogan with its respective university. (Disclosure: I am, perhaps, bitter that my own proposed branding slogan—”UQ, a university not a brand”—did not find favor with my institution’s marketing department.)

Finally there is the question of lock-in. A university degree is a required ticket for entry to many professions, and where state-level licensing applies, the range of choices may be limited. At the top end, access to various elite jobs is confined largely to the products of Ivy League and similarly elite institutions. That is a form of lock-in that adds to “brand value,” but in a socially unproductive way.

Branding, as applied to higher education, is nonsense. Colleges are disparate communities of scholars (both teachers and students) whose collective identity is largely a fiction, handy during football season but of little relevance to the actual business of teaching and research. The suggestion that a common letterhead and slogan can “present an image to the world of a multifaceted, but unified, institution” is comforting to university managers but bears no correspondence to reality.

The idea of universities as corporate owners of brands is directly at odds with what John Henry Newman called “the Idea of a University.” To be sure, that idea is the subject of contestation and debate, but in all its forms it embodies the ideal of advancing knowledge through free discussion rather than burnishing the image of a corporation. In the end, brands and universities belong to different worlds.

John Quiggin is a fellow in economics at the University of Queensland, in Australia; a columnist for The Australian Financial Review; a blogger for Crooked Timber; and the author of Zombie Economics: How Dead Ideas Still Walk Among Us (Princeton University Press, 2010).

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  1. Newtownian
    October 31st, 2014 at 16:27 | #1

    This university who can remain anonymous (sort of) used to have the latinate slogan Manu et Mente – by the hand and the mind.

    Subsequently during the reign of an interim VC the slogan wasnt changed but the old coat of arms was replaced by a plethora of spirals with different spirals representing apparently different faculties/divisions. I heard the consultants were paid about 100K for this branding travesty which was dropped shortly after necessitating much letterhead rebranding (how do the Feds cope??!!) when….

    the present VC incumbent/council changed the motto to “Never stand Still”

    which any afficiando of Weaselwords will recognise is simply an alternative way of saying “Moving Forward”, that well known staple of Weaselwords Bingo. The cost of this I have not heard but I expect in keeping with the modern corporate university it is commercial in confidence.

    (I was once in a meeting/workshop where the latter was repeated over 20 times. Later I found I wasnt alone in noticing this and on another table they were competing for who could remember the precise number.)

  2. Newtownian
    October 31st, 2014 at 16:46 | #2

    In relation to the hideous cant/terminology associated with branding and marketing I am also reminded of George Orwell’s wonderful essay on abuse of the English language

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Politics_and_the_English_Language
    https://web.archive.org/web/20080530044652/http://www.calvinvanhoek.com/articles/2007/04/politics-english-language/

    Sadly it appears little has changed.

  3. conrad
    October 31st, 2014 at 17:26 | #3

    It’s all very well to say this, but the biggest attractor of undergraduate students by far is brand, which in Aus means how high up the research tables the university is, so unless someone works out how to break this down it will go on forever, and we will get silly bureaucrats, marketers etc. thinking they are doing something (I agree, they’re basically irrelevant money wasters). Even things like the government’s ERA, where you can see which groups in a university are supposedly good at research, the good universities guide where you can see teaching quality, tables of graduate starting salaries etc. don’t seem to make much difference. So it’s not clear to me how you could actually get students to choose based on quality of things that matter and not just who the provider is (and for that matter, how you get them to choose decent degrees, not the crappy ones marketed at them, which is a similar problem).

  4. Ikonoclast
    October 31st, 2014 at 18:41 | #4

    @conrad

    I would have thought that the biggest attractor of Australian undergrad students by far was proximity. I believe Australian students (not overseas students) tend to go to the university closest to where they have lived and been high-schooled. I am referring to where they lived before being accepted in a university and where they probably most often continue to live once accepted. However, correct me if I am wrong.

  5. J-D
    October 31st, 2014 at 19:14 | #5

    I like ‘a university, not a brand’. Why your marketing people opposed, I wonder. It’s not as if that kind of approach hasn’t been used before (‘Image is nothing. Thirst is everything. Obey your thirst.’).

  6. J-D
    October 31st, 2014 at 19:19 | #6

    @Newtownian

    The old coat of arms is still in use for official purposes, and still accompanied by Manu et Mente as the motto (to use the correct technical term; there are slogans in heraldry in addition to mottoes, but only for Scottish clan chiefs). I’ve often said about ‘Never Stand Still’ that I like Manu et Mente.

  7. plaasmatron
    October 31st, 2014 at 20:06 | #7

    The university ranking system is like the credit ratings agencies. We saw how well that worked. There is also extreme pressure for individuals to “brand” themselves (not just tattoos).

    The reference to Newman is interesting. Whether Newman’s “Ideas” are still relevant in a modern landscape is debatable. He wrote “The view taken of a University in these Discourses is the following. — That it is a place of teaching universal knowledge. This implies that its object is, on the one hand, intellectual, not moral; and, on the other, that it is the diffusion and extension of knowledge rather than the advancement. If its object were scientific and philosophical discovery, I do not see why a University should have students; if religious training, I do not see how it can be the seat of literature and science.”

    Universities have changed from being providers of knowledge for domestic students, to being research intensive corporate institutes with pedagogic efforts now aimed at international and other fee paying students. The research effort – which until recently was dominated by research institutes such as the CSIRO – is aimed solely on improving the academic ranking of the University, which feeds back to the fee structure that the university can impose. The role of the academic is now to increase the research standings.

    The teaching duties are outsourced to professional teaching providers, whether internal or external. This will change markedly with the advent of MOOCs and other mixed and blended learning modes. There will be even less requirement for academics to teach. They will be purely required to obtain research funds from government and private sources.

    The funding model is changing from government supported student places to partial or full fee paying places. Simultaneously, government research funding is reducing, in real terms in the US and the UK, and in absolute terms in Australia (the only OECD country to do so). This may have the effect, in time, of reducing the research rankings and therefore jeopardizing the funding model of the universities. This will be mitigated if the universities decide to support their own research initiatives via their increased private funding.

    There are a number of consequences of this shift;
    • Extra-university research institutes are losing ever more funding to the universities. These institutes often focus on research relative to domestic industries and communities, with specific results-based aims e.g. Rabbit plagues. University research, in contrast, is often focused on international issues, with an aim to be internationally recognized. Much university research is not outcomes-based, but rather focused on metrics defined by academic publications and the like.
    • Students have increasingly less contact with the best academics. Those academics that can do world class research are excused from teaching duties.

  8. Lindsay Stafford
    October 31st, 2014 at 20:25 | #8

    This may be somewhat irreverent but I remember a few years ago when my son started university the attempt to “brand” the Brisbane Universities. The rather vulgar version went something like this
    University of Queensland – “the Real University”
    Qld University of Technology – “A University for the Real World”
    Griffith University – “It’s a University – Really!!”

  9. David Allen
    October 31st, 2014 at 20:31 | #9

    These marketing types are definitely from the B-Ark.

  10. October 31st, 2014 at 21:01 | #10

    Lovely writing!

    At my university, in my school, I feel that we do a good job. But I don’t have enough experience to know – I just know that lots of good people seem to be trying hard to provide good education. But I really have no idea how good the rest of the university is, or even how my school compares to the same school in other universities.

    I’d like to see students get more information when choosing a university. But branding would, I imagine, aim to reduce the amount of information. You’d prefer students to make a decision based on your brand, rather than a lot of information.

    From my extremely narrow perspective, I’d like to provide an enrolment tool to new students. A tool that looks at their high school results, and gives them statistical information about their chances of passing each 1st year uni unit they have chosen. Right now this could be done where I am, because we have 3 years stability at both high school level and university unit level.

    Of course we currently offer this in the form of pre-requisites. But I can tell you that on one unit I look after, a score of 55% in a couple of the pre-reqs means almost certain failure, while a score of 80% in one pre-req means its very hard to fail.

  11. Ernestine Gross
    October 31st, 2014 at 21:48 | #11

    “…SGH Martineau, put up a blog post suggesting that universities should take action against “insubordinate” academics with “outspoken opinions.” …”

    What a crude form of soliciting ‘work’ – I suppose it is their brand.

  12. Collin Street
    October 31st, 2014 at 22:04 | #12

    David Allen :
    These marketing types are definitely from the B-Ark.

    Oh, no, the marketers are pretty sharp: it’s a nasty competitive business and all that. Problems with marketing usually come from the clients.

    [for some reason — I suspect it’s got something to do with its relative tractability over say large-scale institutional/structural change — rebranding seems particularly attractive to clueless terrible micro-managing bosses.]

  13. Ikonoclast
    October 31st, 2014 at 23:00 | #13

    Corporatism is destroying our society from within. It is a cancer.

  14. plaasmatron
    October 31st, 2014 at 23:19 | #14

    The lock-in aspect reminds me of the guilds, or Zünfte in Germany. Recall the Jews were forbidden from joining guilds, which is why they turned to money lending. Not that they were any worse at handicrafts. Just that they couldn’t buy the required brand.

    In relation to the increase in university fees, these lock-in courses will be interesting in future. I notice that the old teaching qualification of the 1 year DipEd is being phased out, and will be a compulsory two year Masters or Bachelor from 2017 (on top of the Bachelor). With the increase in annual fees from 6k to 9-10k, this is a nice little bonus for the Unis.

    Of course the big name lock-ins are Law and Medicine. Keep an eye on the fee changes for them.

  15. conrad
    November 1st, 2014 at 09:04 | #15

    I would have thought that the biggest attractor of Australian undergrad students by far was proximity

    Proximity is number 2. For example, in Victoria, people will try to go to Melbourne and Monash no matter what, even if the courses are awful (for example, CS at Melbourne was awful for donkeys years but it never stopped them getting good students, and many courses at Monash have awful teaching which is probably due in part to their size [+2000 students in a single subject] and the bureaucratic nightmare which Monash is). After that you have a glob of mid-tier universities where location is the biggest attractor (which is part of the reason La Trobe is broke — it’s in a bad catchment area and hard to get to), and then ones thought of as rubbish (VUT, which also has serious money problems) that people only go to if they are desperate to go to any university.

  16. Ken_L
    November 1st, 2014 at 09:49 | #16

    I became increasingly intrigued during my time with a business school to observe how every problem had a marketing solution. This mentality influenced every decision from the new name of the school after one of the incessant reorganisations that inhibited any true sense of collegiality to the structure of the core courses, where the way they could be marketed was much more important than the content.

    Every new VC of course wants to devise a new strategy, accompanied by new logos, slogans etc. As was observed in “Yes Minister”, activity is an excellent substitute for achievement.

    The odd thing is that virtually everyone acknowledges how awful the situation is, but nobody accepts responsibility for doing anything about it.

  17. Megan
    November 1st, 2014 at 11:19 | #17

    @conrad

    I would have thought that entrance score played a major role for a lot of students too.

    Either because they want to go to uni, any uni they can get into, to get a degree in anything they can. Or because they want to do a certain discipline but can’t get into it at the proximate or ‘prestige’ unis.

  18. Donald Oats
    November 1st, 2014 at 15:58 | #18

    If you play in a de-regulated free market, brand management is essential. As you have pointedly observed, it is directly at odds with the idea of a university. Sadly, we seem to be at a turning point, one where the right to free speech when making an intellectual case for—or against—something, is being rapidly eroded.

    There are two current examples of how the right to private speech via email, a function once provided by either the letter or the landline telephone, has evaporated entirely; anything said can and will be used against you, even years after the fact. While some of what Barry Spurr’s released emails portray is rather ugly if taken on face value, without knowing the full context it is impossible to fairly decide what to make of it. Personally, I feel that even if the Professor’s decisions in the education review give a consistently anti-Indigenous view, his private emails shouldn’t come into it: his decisions with respect to the review should stand or fall on the strength of (any) supporting argument he has provided. That’s his brief, and that’s his job. This assumption that email is public property, whether the email facility is provided by the employer or not, really needs to be addressed properly. We shouldn’t need to go back to the use of physical letters and snail mail just to have privacy: after all, are our employers permitted to open any and all of our outgoing or ingoing letters?

    Furthermore, and this has crept in as part of the relentless crusade for brand management, why is it that universities, and CSIRO for that matter, can restrict employee’s freedom both at work and when not officially at work, with regards to what they can say, even in private conversations at the pub, about their work, even when it is not constrained by commercial in confidence arrangements, patents, or any other commercial constraint? Since when did we become the vassals of our employers, and why are academics so constrained? The role of an academic is surely one in which there is a very high level of public interest in their intellectual contribution to our knowledge? Do we have to go back to the old 19th Century model of the independently wealthy individual conducting research, or the researcher supported by charity of philanthropic wealthy individuals?

    Personally, I feel very strongly that the whole brand management concept is morally repugnant, when applied to places of education, especially public education. There is a huge difference between having an entirely justified reputation for intellectual vibrancy, and resorting to a team of people whose role is brand placement and brand creation. PR staff would better serve the universities if their role was to assist academics in educational outreach, rather than this business of creating a brand.

    One of the demoralising trends is for universities to find ways of giving students a sense of higher achievement than is the reality. Anyone who has sat through an exam scaling exercise will appreciate the difficulties in drawing a line between adjusting for inevitable variation in exam difficulty from year to year, and the (pressing) need to ensure a reasonable fraction of the students pass the subject. There is necessarily a subjective element, and that is exploited in coercing higher pass rates; if repeat students block the flow of new students through the system, that is bad for business. The other “easy” way to make students and their prospective employers feel they are high achievers is to add new categories: an old distinction was 75–100%; this is now split into a distinction of 75% to 84%, and a new high distinction category of 85–100%. Someone who got one of the old vanilla flavoured distinctions might have had 84%, and been in the top couple of percent of their class; now, that would be a “mere distinction,” rather than a solid achievement. Kind of devalues the old degree, I would think—but only if you subscribe to the brand management model of a university, rather than a place for quiet intellectual achievement and thus acquired reputation well deserved.

    You’ve touched a raw nerve with me, Prof Quiggin 🙂

  19. Donald Oats
    November 1st, 2014 at 16:10 | #19

    BTW, does anyone remember the series A Very Peculiar Practice? It riffed on the idea of the increasing commercialisation of universities and wannabe unis…how prescient.

  20. Ikonoclast
    November 1st, 2014 at 16:10 | #20

    @Donald Oats

    Q. “Since when did we become the vassals of our employers, and why are academics so constrained?”

    A. Since we entered late stage corporate capitalism.

  21. Donald Oats
    November 1st, 2014 at 16:18 | #21

    The idea of intellectual curiosity for its own reward, is almost entirely absent from the modern public debates about universities, and education systems. If you were to say that the pursuit of knowledge is both the goal and the reward for being an academic, the staff responsible for hiring and firing would be aghast, for the statement implies—in their modern minds—that you are not aiming at profit maximisation, and thus have little value to the modern uni. In fact, if you said it in public, it’s arguable that you could be done for insubordination.

  22. Henry George
    November 1st, 2014 at 17:17 | #22

    The problem with the unrestricted fee policy is that it does not go far enough. Obviously we also need to abolish tenure and have all academic staff reapply for short term contracts only. This may mean that many over 50 need not bother applying but that’s life in the real world.

    Clearly undergraduate fees should not be used to subsidise research. Academics will need to go to the marker for research funds. They should also pay facility fees to the university.

    There should be KPIs for academics. I notice that JQ has produced about 1,000 articles over 30 odd years. Something of that order should be the gold standard.

    Faculty should be rated by students on the quality of their teaching and their remuneration based on student willingness to pay.

    The question then is: how many academics would buy the above? Bugger all I should imagine.

  23. conrad
    November 1st, 2014 at 17:19 | #23

    Megan — of course Enter scores play a role. It might not have been clear but I meant that if you had the choice to go anywhere because of your Enter score, then the biggest factor is research prestige and then proximity (i.e., nothing to do with the quality of the course). A very long distance third that can have something to do with the quality of the course are things like course add-ons, some of which are just marketing and others such as doing a year of industry-based training which can permanently change your life for the better (not surprisingly employers love to hire graduates who have done it). Curiously, at least where I work, students don’t think too highly of such things, as they generally think they’ll get a better salary when they finish and so aren’t willing to invest a fully-paid year of their lives doing it to get experience. So again you have the problem of student’s perceptions of reality and what they want university versus actual reality.

  24. Lt. Fred
    November 1st, 2014 at 19:47 | #24

    Everyone knows, @Lindsay Stafford that Griffith is the University for the Third World.

  25. Jonathan
    November 1st, 2014 at 23:11 | #25

    You are ignoring the fact, cited in the essay, that University rankings have been quite stable for a long time. Attempts to change rankings by public relations people have been failures.

  26. dk
    November 1st, 2014 at 23:45 | #26

    Some Brisbane-based comments in this thread demonstrate that branding actually works very well. QUT’s brand has given it a much stronger reputation than Griffith despite having been around half as long (as a university) and in the absence of clear superiority in objective measures of quality. Of course, branding only takes you so far – QUT can never challenge UQ – but outside the sandstones successful branding makes a big difference.

  27. Ken_L
    November 2nd, 2014 at 06:08 | #27

    @Henry George

    Henry perhaps your scenario was intended to be fanciful satire but it is not too far from the already existing reality. KPIs for example have been standard for years for all academic staff, including ones for publications. Indeed an academic who fails to meet the publications requirement will soon be looking for a job unless they can find another way to bring money into the institution.

    Tenured positions have almost disappeared from most unis. Many full-time academic positions will only be only filled by applicants who can bring a good chunk of external research funding with them – i.e. they are self-funding and help to pay the management overheads. And a lot of teaching is done by casual staff who are in fact expected to contribute significantly to their supervisors’ research work without payment.

    In my case I paid my school $25000 to do a doctorate while I was employed. It was made pretty clear my short-term contracts would not be continued if I didn’t. I was not the only one in that position. Not too many industries have managed to retain the medieval system where workers have to pay to get trained for the job, but it’s probably an idea whose idea has come again. After all workers want jobs, employers have them, so why shouldn’t the workers have to purchase them?

    Universities have become commercial entities driven by the need to attract non-government funds. That was the public policy intention and it’s been achieved. For a while this demand could be met by student fees from international students but that source is drying up, so the pressure is on to find alternatives. The idea that anyone should be trying to expand the frontiers of knowledge without a measurable benefit to the school is no longer part of university culture in this country. Neoliberals of course will rejoice, even while demanding that public funding be cut even further.

  28. J-D
    November 2nd, 2014 at 07:19 | #28

    @Donald Oats

    Yes, I remember A Very Peculiar Practice with great pleasure.

  29. Ikonoclast
    November 2nd, 2014 at 07:42 | #29

    @dk

    Being aware of advertising slogans and branding does not necessarily equate to buying the product. People vary of course but I suspect a significant sub-group are like me in the following way. Insistent and inane ads annoy me to the point where I vow to NOT buy that product. Being a bit of an obsessive personality I stick strongly to these boycotts. I can well imagine those QUT ads annoying a person to the point of thinking “No way would I go to an institution banal enough to run those trite ads.”

    I would regard those ads as symptomatic, perhaps diagnostic, of something wrong with the corporate culture of the place. Of course to say “something wrong with the corporate culture” is to utter a tautology or even a euphimism. Corporate culture is always wrong. Everything is wrong with corporate culture all the time.

  30. ezra abrams
    November 2nd, 2014 at 08:12 | #30

    As you may know here in the USA, the elite universitys have taken branding to the next level – franchising
    NYU is the farthest, with a plan for a global circle, but as far as i can tell, all the elite guys are scrambling as hard as they can to setup in shanghai/dubai etc

    I assume it is a profit center: A MADE IN US degree is one of the few things we produce that people still want, so foreigners will pay top dollar for an NYU or CMU or Yale degree

    PS: something to hideous to pass up – many of you have heard of NYU, an urban university in NYC that does well,as many faculty want to live in NY
    NYU owns two large apt blocks that are faculty housing; between them is a large (for ny) green space
    NYU is proposing to tear this down and erect giant buildings without green space…it would be harder to think of something stupider and more self destructive

    PPS: Eisenhower , as president of Columbia University in NYC, begins his first address to the faculty: “The University…”

    I I Rabi stands up, and declaims “WE are the university…”

  31. dk
    November 2nd, 2014 at 09:55 | #31

    @Ikonoclast
    Enrolment figures very clearly say otherwise.

  32. Ikonoclast
    November 2nd, 2014 at 10:14 | #32

    @dk

    Yeah well, you can fool most of the people most of the time… until the final crisis breaks and it becomes manifest and obvious to all. I don’t see this corporatist “progression” as positive or sustainable in any way. Indeed the opposite is true. The progressive corporatisation of our society and education is maladaptive, catabolic and finally destructive… not to mention anti-democratic. Intellectual life declines, the adoption of wise and sustainable paths of development is critically impeded. Society becomes progressively more ideologically conditioned, monolithic, monocultural, sclerotic, hidebound and welded to unsustainable production modes. It’s a systemic disease, a metastising cancer which will destroy the host unless radical action is taken at some point.

  33. Ikonoclast
    November 2nd, 2014 at 10:15 | #33

    Sorry, I can’t spell: “metastasizing”.

  34. conrad
    November 2nd, 2014 at 11:35 | #34

    “As you may know here in the USA, the elite universitys have taken branding to the next level – franchising”

    Aus universities do this also as they set up campuses in other places that are vastly different in terms of quality to the home one as well as for profit online courses entirely run by other people. One might also argue that getting casuals to do a lot of teaching is very similar to franchising as you end up with courses of quite different status since some of are run by experts and some are run by people that may not know a whole lot about them.

  35. jungney
    November 2nd, 2014 at 11:35 | #35

    @Henry George
    My only contact with kpi’s was during a brief stint with the public service, NSW. At the annual review I made good use of arandom kpi generator such as “interactively maximize sticky “outside the box” thinking”. It ensured that my managers were in need of a drink as much as I was at the end of the process. If ever there is an example of how and entire class of people is redundant to humanity, it would have to be those who make careers on kpi’s.

  36. dk
    November 2nd, 2014 at 12:06 | #36

    @Ikonoclast
    I agree – corporatisation of universities is a very bad thing in itself. Branding obviously has big effects though. For many Australian universities in the current model, continued success and even survival depends to a large extent on branding. So even though this path leads to a bad end, there’s not much alternative under current conditions of public psychology and university funding. You’re quite right that a radical change is needed in order to get out of the situation.

  37. Collin Street
    November 2nd, 2014 at 12:34 | #37

    I can well imagine those QUT ads annoying a person to the point of thinking “No way would I go to an institution banal enough to run those trite ads.”

    If they can’t set the hook or land you they don’t want you to take the bait.

    http://research.microsoft.com/pubs/167719/WhyFromNigeria.pdf

    [tldr: if you want to scam people you want to not put any effort into people who’ll see through the scam before your payoff, and a good way to do that is to let them see the bogosity of the scheme from the get-go.]

  38. Ikonoclast
    November 2nd, 2014 at 12:48 | #38

    @dk

    Yep, it’s another form of the race to the bottom.

  39. john
    November 2nd, 2014 at 15:40 | #39

    As I child in the 1960s I made Airfix models of WW2 aircraft. I was always amused by the instruction, ‘use only Airfix polystyrene cement’. Like, anyone’s else’s polystyrene cement was going to make the thing spontaneously combust?

  40. November 2nd, 2014 at 20:50 | #40

    The interesting thing would be what would happen if a single university decided to try to get away from this stupidity while the rest kept at it. If they took the money they spend on TV ads, sponsorship of football grounds (Yup) logo redesigns etc and invested that in raising salaries and employing more academics.

    Presumably their places in the academic ratings would rise, as would student satisfaction. However, would this be enough to offset the loss of profile from advertising when it comes to drawing in the best students?

  41. November 2nd, 2014 at 20:58 | #41

    Slightly tangential, but it seems to me that the best thing a university can do to promote its brand is actually to publicize the good work it is doing. Now one way to do this is to spend millions on advertising, such as the way Monash paid for billboards at train stations advertising research achievements.

    But it is much cheaper to simply get media to pick up on the stories when they come out. Naturally every university has staff whose job is to publicize their work, but some of them are not getting much help from the university itself. Recently I have, on a few occasions, found myself in need of a science story to cover and gone looking at the websites of CSIRO or the major universities to see if there is anything good. A number of them have buried the media releases to the extent that I spent several frustrating minutes trying to find them, before moving on to another institution. In some cases it seemed that you needed to check the website of each individual department, rather than having them all aggregated at the one spot.

    Meanwhile the front pages were filled with useless guff such as meaningless statements from the Vice Chancellor or visits from senior government officials.

  42. ezra abrams
    November 3rd, 2014 at 01:05 | #42

    William Black has a idea called “control fraud” : when those in power use the institution for their benefit
    http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1607040
    (perhaps a well known idea, i first heard it from black)

    Branding is a form of control fraud: the Top Officers (The “C suite” in business parlance) use the university as a source of personal funding

    in this context, the actions of Univ Presidents are differ from those ofCEOs who loot their companys only in the number of zeros involved; a CEO can loot on a hundred million dollar scale.
    this also relates to ideas of P Krugman et al recently on why corporations hoard cash; the obvious answer, if you are not an economists, is that CEOs are managing their companys so as to maximize their salary; if the stockholders, employees and vendors suffer, to bad for them

  43. ted markstein
    November 3rd, 2014 at 07:08 | #43

    That persistent pressure felt
    when insisting
    on not being
    what you’re not
    is resistance.
    The magnet
    likes its filings
    neatly aligned

  44. Ikonoclast
    November 3rd, 2014 at 09:24 | #44

    @ted markstein

    If you could work on that, get the syllables down to 17, combine the two ideas more closely and have the second idea flow more organically from the first, then you might have a good haiku. Traditional haiku consist of 17 “on” or sound units (syllables) , in three phrases of five, seven and five on respectively.

    “The magnet
    likes its filings
    neatly aligned”

    is more subtle and closer in spirit to Haiku than the first sentence or stanza. The alliteration and onomatopoeia in the first sentence are unsubtle and uncomfortably close to being a tongue-twister.

    Don’t forget, once you put stuff out there, everyone’s a critic. 🙂

  45. November 3rd, 2014 at 16:44 | #45

    Thanks Conrad #15 for the lovely words on VU (the T dropped off years ago). We have a brand strategy, so the serious money problems should go away soon.

    The money problems are due to Victoria’s TAFE cuts, declining onshore students and the last budget.

    VU does however, take on a wide range of people newly arrived in Australia and gives them a leg up, with some pretty good teaching in lots of areas. This is a really valuable social and educational role that is overlooked in the recent budget and in funding models generally. If we looked at the public/private benefits gained from Tertiary education the public proportion from our students, because they become upwardly mobile from an often low educational base, is pretty high.

    They are trying to brand this. I agree with John’s article. But think that a model of being visibly socially inclusive and engaged with the community is more sustainable, but is seen as risky, because now all universities are competing in a marketplace. For a poor university to throw this over and behave differently, is too big a risk for them to contemplate.

  46. John Quiggin
    November 4th, 2014 at 05:43 | #46

    @Collin Street

    This is a great point! Must think more about it.

  47. Collin Street
    November 4th, 2014 at 08:08 | #47

    With particular reference to desireable market segments in advertising-funded media: I suggest Big Brother, Architectural Digest and the Economist.

  48. Ben Aveling
    November 4th, 2014 at 08:53 | #48

    ”UQ, a university not a brand”—did not find favor with my institution’s marketing department.

    Perhaps if you had suggested ”UQ, a brand, not a university”.

  49. ted markstein
    November 4th, 2014 at 13:34 | #49

    thank you for your suggestion but as it’s not haiku I’m unsure as to the relevance. Suggest you reread it.

    Iron filings all
    Neatly aligned just the way
    All magnets demand

    while making a point would miss the point of the poem.

  50. ted markstein
    November 4th, 2014 at 13:36 | #50

    ted markstein :
    thank you for your suggestion but as it’s not haiku I’m unsure as to the relevance. Suggest you reread it.
    Iron filings all
    Neatly aligned just the way
    All magnets demand
    while making a point would miss the point of the poem.

    Ikonoclast :
    @ted markstein
    If you could work on that, get the syllables down to 17, combine the two ideas more closely and have the second idea flow more organically from the first, then you might have a good haiku. Traditional haiku consist of 17 “on” or sound units (syllables) , in three phrases of five, seven and five on respectively.
    “The magnet
    likes its filings
    neatly aligned”
    is more subtle and closer in spirit to Haiku than the first sentence or stanza. The alliteration and onomatopoeia in the first sentence are unsubtle and uncomfortably close to being a tongue-twister.
    Don’t forget, once you put stuff out there, everyone’s a critic.

  51. conrad
    November 4th, 2014 at 16:40 | #51

    “If we looked at the public/private benefits gained from Tertiary education the public proportion from our students, because they become upwardly mobile from an often low educational base, is pretty high.”

    I’ve never once worked at a university where any of the management even thought about benefits to society or the student. I remember once sitting in a faculty meeting and some guy from the CSIRO had just joined and clearly wasn’t used to universities (you probably understand this!). He stuck his hand up and asked our VC at the time (Ian Young, who is now of course the head of the Go8), if anyone had thought about the type of skills and courses that were needed in the Australian economy. Ian Young’s response (and I give him a big tick for honesty here) was that “he had never even thought about it”. I imagine he still hasn’t.

  52. plaasmatron
    November 4th, 2014 at 19:06 | #52

    @conrad

    That is the capitalist model of education. Unrestricted numbers of demand driven places, driving students into debt, hoping for a job in an economy with no vision. e.g. teaching. Should be pretty easy to work out how many (and what sort of) teachers we will need in the future, regardless of the state of the world economy.

    “Unemployment among teaching graduates, particularly primary ones, is likely to get worse. Since the uncapping of university places in 2012, more students have been accepted into education courses.” SMH 29.08.2013

  53. plaasmatron
    November 4th, 2014 at 20:00 | #53

    Revelations over at New Matilda about corruption investigations into the private education provider “Vocation”. victorian-rorts-reveal-danger-university-deregulation

    Vocation’s profits were in large part driven by a ruthless model of supplier squeeze, in which public subsidies for training were booked as revenue, with courses delivered for less than the subsidy by training subcontractors in a process known as auspicing. As a result, Vocation could grow its bottom line without the need to invest in costly classrooms, libraries and teachers.

  54. November 6th, 2014 at 11:43 | #54

    @plaasmatron

    WRT teaching graduates, I can confirm that OUA accepts into their teaching course students who cannot possibly pass, and that their graduates have a terrible reputation. I know someone who teaches there who wrote an unofficial reference for one of her students that effectively said, “despite graduating from OUA, is actually a very good teacher”.

    And as for Vocation, why would they not do it? Vocation take the trouble to go through the accreditation process, and then subcontract out the actual teaching – and makes lots of money. Is there any working for-profit educational institution in Australia? Private schools don’t run for profit.

    The only way I can conceive of for-profit education working is if there is external student assessment, and the education providers are paid a “success fee” if their students pass. But in todays world there is buckleys chance of that happening.

  55. conrad
    November 7th, 2014 at 06:55 | #55

    OUA accepts anyone — there are no entry requirements — that’s their official policy (hence “Open”).

  56. November 8th, 2014 at 01:34 | #56

    @conrad
    That is a ridiculous policy!

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