Posts Tagged ‘Higher Education’
Over the last few years, every institution in the Western world seems to have jumped onto the social media bandwagon. Often without much accompanying analysis, organisations have assumed that engagement through social media will have positive effects on their recruitment and performance, and the higher education sector has been no different. It is rare indeed to find a university which does not maintain a Twitter feed and Facebook presence at the very least. Only now, however, is work really being done to examine how these tools might actually affect university performance.
Social media consultancy Sociagility recently carried out a study which attempted to measure the correlation between engagement with interactive online communication and overall university rankings. After measuring the social media output of the top 25 US and UK universities (as found in the Times World University Rankings) within a comprehensive scoring system, the report found a very close correlation between social media scores and overall institutional rankings. In other words, the better the university performed, the more successfully and actively it used its social media outlets.
Of course, in some ways such an outcome is unsurprising. The best higher education institutions in the world inevitably tend to have more money than less reputable institutions, and so are likely to have a more comprehensive social media strategy. The report did not claim to prove a causative link between social media use and institutional success. What it did show, however, is that UK universities as a group scored significantly lower in measurements of successful social media usage than their counterparts in the US. It seems that the British education sector has yet to catch up with the use of social media.
Some might argue, however, that lagging behind in terms of social media is not such a bad thing. For example, recent research jointly conducted by the PR firm Communications Management and The Student Room has found that a university’s online activity has little bearing on student recruitment. Over 300 current and potential students were surveyed about their choice of university in this study, and whilst two-thirds of students use social media channels several times a day, this outlet of information was rated as both less influential and less trustworthy than traditional printed material, or face-to-face communication opportunities.
Such research does not show that social media is unimportant, but rather that higher education institutions should take a balanced view of its utility. It is certainly not the panacea which might have been hoped for in some quarters, but neither is it useless, particularly given the high social media usage of the student demographic. Ultimately, universities which wish to use social media appropriately need to understand that the most important part of any student’s choice of institution is reputation. Social media is not only a tool for communicating that reputation, but also a powerful factor in shaping it, as long as the university is willing actively to engage with current and prospective students.
In other words, simply having a Facebook and Twitter account is not enough. The research conducted by Communications Management and The Student Room suggested that many of the students surveyed were unaware that their chosen university even had a social media presence. In order to be effective, such tools must be actively utilised, rather than simply existing. What is more, the information put out through such media cannot simply be the usual promotional and PR language simply translated to a different medium. Students gave clear feedback in the survey that “they [universities] do not talk about the things we need to know” and that “I don’t find enough useful information [on social media channels] that relates to me”.
Essentially, the study has found that social media is of little use unless its content is both targeted at the right audience, and utilises the strength of the medium. Rather than talking ‘at’ students, universities should be using social media to find out what is of interest to them, and then tailoring their output to the responses received. That, after all, is the strength of social media. The number of institutions which still appear to believe that simply having a Twitter presence is enough to grant online credibility is astonishing. As the above quotations reveal, many universities do not even signpost students to the fact that they have a social media presence, seeming instead to believe that their work via social media will somehow be noticed by osmosis.
The traditionally bureaucratic structure of higher education institutions may also be problematic when seeking to use social media effectively. After all, the manager of a social media account is unlikely to have the authority needed to respond properly to student concerns, and in most cases will not even be monitoring social media channels in a full-time capacity. Twitter, Facebook and other such media cannot be used to their maximum effect without significant effort and thought being put into the task.
As with all university functions, social media works much more effectively if it is part of a wider recruitment and performance strategy, and if its purpose is clearly identified. Currently, too many universities see their social media presence as a box to be ticked, rather than a powerful tool to be explored. It is, perhaps, little wonder that many students currently feel that universities have missed the point of social media altogether. It remains to be seen whether the UK’s higher education sector will eventually catch up with its US counterpart.
“Margaret Thatcher, milk snatcher”. Ask most people about the recently deceased Prime Minister’s impact on education, and most will reply that she took away free milk from schoolchildren whilst serving as Secretary of State for Education under Edward Heath. However, memorable headlines apart, Margaret Thatcher actually had a sweeping and widespread influence across the education sector, and nowhere more so than in the traditional world of universities.
As with so many other things about Margaret Thatcher’s political career, opinion is split about the desirability of the revolution she and her philosophical soul-mate, Keith Joseph, brought about in the higher education sector. Far from conserving the traditions of Britain’s ivory towers, Baroness Thatcher’s government sought to introduce competition and free market ideology into the country’s universities for the first time. She started a trend which has continued over the last three decades, and in many ways has resulted in British academia becoming almost unrecognisable from the pre 1979 years.
It did not take long for the new Thatcherite government to start altering the university sector, with sweeping cuts being made in 1981 as part of the wider monetarist agenda. Many universities were given only a month to make 18 per cent cuts in their overall budgets, and over 3,000 academics lost their jobs as part of the retrenchment in funding across the public sector. In the same year, the government approved the introduction of full tuition fees for international students, and also attempted to offset the impact of this move by taking the first steps towards marketing the UK’s higher education sector as a desirable export to developing countries.
For many in Baroness Thatcher’s government, the introduction of tuition fees for international students was just the first step towards the full marketisation of the higher education sector. That, however, was an idea whose time had not come, and despite Keith Joseph’s plan to abolish the maintenance grant and introduce tuition fees for all students, the political situation during the miner’s strike forced the shelving of such radical ideas. Instead, the Conservative government introduced the concept of competition into universities in more subtle and perhaps more far-reaching ways, the most controversial of which was the formulation of the Research Assessment Exercise.
The RAE, which first took place in 1986, was designed to measure the research output and quality of higher education institutions within the UK, and was the progenitor of the various league tables and assessment procedures which exist throughout universities today. It was enormously controversial upon its introduction, and was seen as ushering in the end of ‘pure research’ in favour of market orientated academic work. It can certainly be said to have led to an increase in competition between universities, which has only increased after the transformation of the old polytechnics in the 1990s. The RAE and its successors introduced quantitative assessment into a sector which previously operated almost entirely on reputation and freedom of research, and there can be no doubt that this has changed the face of academia throughout the UK.
Once the RAE had been conducted, the government led by Margaret Thatcher continued to push forward its radical reforms in the education sector, accomplishing the long desired abolition of tenure for university professorships in 1988. Many senior academics consider this to have increased the tendency for research to orientate itself towards business-friendly applications, and blame it in part for the decline of research into the liberal humanities. Others, however, point to it as a vital move towards the increasing efficiency and relevance of academia to everyday life. It has certainly contributed to the rise of the ‘new managerialism’ within the higher education sector, as well as the increasing importance of business tools such as branding.
Of course, the Thatcher government did not entirely break with the past when administering higher education. As might be expected by an Oxford graduate and former scientist, Baroness Thatcher was keen to push forward scientific research, and her interest in building a meritocratic society led her to champion some projects which were initiated by Labour, such as the Open University. Throughout the decade of Thatcherite policies, however, an emphasis on increased competition and efficient administration continued to transform even these originally socialist projects.
Ultimately, however, it may be that Baroness Thatcher’s most significant achievement in the higher education sector was the legacy she left, providing the foundation upon which others could build. Allegedly, when asked about her finest achievement in politics, she replied “New Labour”. Nowhere is this more evident than in higher education. Tony Blair was able to radically transform the university sector only because of the foundational work which had been done by Baroness Thatcher and her government. Regardless of whether one views modern academia as efficient and responsive or managerialist and overly competitive, Margaret Thatcher’s policies can be seen everywhere. She truly did have a significant impact throughout society.
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Anyone who has ever had a discussion with someone who has bought products from either Apple or John Lewis will recognise the signs. The slightly fanatical stare and almost religious language, the identification with the product or service not just in terms of its efficiency or quality, but also in terms of the values it promotes. Both organisations are prime examples of successful brands, and of the ways in which organisations can become anthropomorphised in the imaginations of consumers and other stakeholders.There is no doubt that companies, driven by the incentives of the marketplace, have been in the forefront of such branding exercises. Nonetheless, organisations in other fields have also been branding themselves for years, often in unconscious but extremely powerful ways.
“Never Knowingly Undersold”.
The higher education sector is no different to other areas of the economy in this regard. The University of Oxford, for example, can boast a complex and highly effective brand, which operates around its traditions, history, reputation for academic excellence and place in the wider cultural context of the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, on the opposite end of the spectrum, the University of Sussex continues to benefit (and, in some ways, suffer) from its reputation as a left-wing and progressive institution.
With the advent of the Research Excellence Framework, many universities have been engaged in a near frenzy of offers and counter-offers to so-called ‘research stars’. The quality and quantity of research produced by higher education institutions will now dictate, in large part, the funding provided to them. As a result, salaries for the top end of the academic scale are increasing, whilst those academics who are committed to teaching or whose publication history is less than stellar find themselves near the scrapheap. Clearly, such a bidding war disadvantages smaller and poorer institutions. It is here that branding within higher education can come into its own.
The business sector has long recognised that salary is only one indicator of job satisfaction and that, indeed, it is often not the most important factor when considering both recruitment and retention of top quality employees. After a certain point, salary functions largely as an indicator of status, as well as a sign that the company values the work done by an employee. Many innovative businesses have found that a supportive working environment, non-financial ‘perks’, and an institutional value system which aligns with those of the employee, are actually significantly more important when considering retention than salary alone.
Clearly, as well as being potentially able to offer larger salaries to academic ‘stars’, the top universities in the country are also able to call upon established branding in order to persuade the best of the best to become their employees. Smaller institutions can also develop effective brands, however, which will allow them to compete in the new, research-led climate. For example, whilst the University of Oxford may well be attractive to a top academic due to both the financial security of an offered post and the intellectual excitement of becoming part of a tradition of academic excellence, such a job also has its downsides. A savvy, smaller institution may not be able to offer the tradition of Oxford, but it can provide a top academic with the opportunity to take a leading role in helping to catalyse a rise up the institutional rankings. It can, also, offer the kind of status and importance within the organisation which even the most prominent academic in Oxford is unlikely to possess.
In other words, universities need to play to their strengths when branding, and need to recognise that their brand is vital when potential academic employees make job related decisions. If an institution does not already have an established brand, no time should be lost in planning a branding strategy, and then executing it. Due to the relative cheapness of online communication channels, this does not have to be an expensive exercise. When done properly, it can form part of a positive feedback loop which rapidly alters and enhances the recruitment and retention of employee talent.
When facing the institutional Goliaths of the academic world, small higher education institutions can feel like David, overwhelmed and overmatched by organisations with more resources and more established reputations. If Apple had reacted to such a situation by simply maintaining their existing brand, it is likely that they would have gone out of business many years ago. Instead, they proactively chose to fashion their weakness into a strength, and to set themselves up as a brand which appealed to a certain type of person. Similarly, if a university does not have centuries of tradition or hordes of Nobel Prize winning alumni, it is still possible to establish a reputation for academic innovation, a friendly atmosphere, beautiful surroundings, or even excellent perks such as fantastic food and drink!
In essence, then, it can be seen that financial resources are not the be-all and end-all of recruitment and retention, either in the corporate or higher education sectors. As the REF era begins, and ever increasing salaries are mooted for academic stars, universities would do well to consider their branding before simply adding another few thousand pounds to their financial offers. Not only will it pay off in terms of recruitment, but it can help to forge an identity for the institution which will drive positive change for years to come.
Academic recruitment: beware, predators at large
How can universities keep their star academics happy to stop them succumbing to a rival’s advances?
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Over the last few decades, the formerly cloistered environment of the university has been forced to adapt to a more commercialised world. With an increasing number of institutions competing for student and faculty talent, every potential advantage counts. This is particularly true as the effects of globalisation are felt in the academic sector, with UK universities no longer competing simply with one another, but with higher education institutions from across the world.
Given this context, it might appear obvious that effective, clear and coherent branding is vital for any university wishing to prosper in the modern world. The only way in which an academic institution can attract sufficient research funding to succeed in comparison to its competition, as well as persuading the best students and academics in the field to take advantage of that funding, is to build a reputation which differentiates it from other universities. Rather than relying on chance, those universities with an effective brand can be confident of continued recruitment and funding success.
Despite this, many academics are extremely resistant to the concept of branding. It is often viewed as seeking to reduce a complex institution, built on the interplay of many differing ideologies and viewpoints, into a few trite words. The ‘smoke and mirrors’ of branding, it is argued, cannot possibly encapsulate the multi-layered reality of any academic institution. For many academics, who are understandably not familiar with the theory of branding or its complexities, the concept is only applicable to soft drinks or trainers. An intellectual ‘product’, in their view, cannot be appropriately branded without reducing academic freedom and closing off avenues of thought.
Rejecting branding as a viable approach for the university sector, however, is actually to ignore the history of academic institutions in the Western world, and particularly within the United Kingdom. It is simply not correct to assert that, until recently, universities did not have to worry about branding themselves or appealing to prospective students and faculty members. It is true, of course, that historically there have been less players within the academic marketplace, but this certainly does not mean that competition was not fierce in previous decades. Differentiation of academic institutions has a long and proud history, and is precisely the method by which the primacy of today’s premier universities was established.
Perhaps the best example of branding within the university sector has been the University of Oxford. The name of the institution conjures up images of the dreaming spires, the Bodleian Library, and rowing on the Isis. The association of particular images and values with an institution is precisely what is meant by branding, and the achievement of Oxford over the centuries has been to integrate its name with ideals of academic excellence, independence of thought, and top quality research. Of course, this has not been done simply by adopting a ‘brand’ in the simplest sense of the term. Until recently, there has been no concerted effort to encapsulate the values which Oxford represents into a comprehensive strategy. Nonetheless, the university has long recognised that the best way in which it can promote itself and maintain primacy in the sector is to offer a particular experience, and to associate itself with particular ideals held by its students and academics.
Across the Atlantic, Harvard University has achieved a similar primacy through branding, although its strategy has been more conscious and more overt than Oxford’s. As with many American universities, the design of specific merchandise, the integration of logos into products and the promotion of particular values within all aspects of the university experience has transformed Harvard into a globally recognised brand. As with Oxford and other world renowned university brands, this has had the effect of forming a virtuous circle. The success of Harvard’s brand has allowed it to attract the best academics, students and research funding, which in turn has allowed it to reinforce its reputation for excellence and further promote its brand.
As can be seen, the process of designing and promoting a university’s brand is significantly more complex than that involved with a simple product. It cannot, and should not, simply involve a few focus group meetings which attempt to encapsulate the essence of the university in a pithy phrase. Instead, it needs to be a long-term project, which orientates itself to the wider strategy of the academic institution which it seeks to serve. An excellent recent example is that of Loughborough University. Its brand in the popular consciousness is now firmly established, with the institution being viewed as one of the best sports science universities in the world. The establishment of this brand, given a foundation by strategic decisions over a number of years, has allowed Loughborough to attract substantial funding for its work in this area. In a similar experience to that of Oxford and Harvard, it has created a virtuous circle, in which an established brand helps to increase the institution’s real excellence in an area of research.
It is that virtuous circle which explains the very real importance of an effective branding strategy for any higher education institution which intends to preserve academic freedom and independence of thought in the 21st century. Far from being a threat to high quality research and the traditions of university life, the construction of an effective brand can become a vital part of preserving those things. Universities which make no effort to market themselves will soon find the best students and staff going elsewhere, and will begin to see their funding being reduced as a result. A failure to adequately explain the work going on within an academic institution is not simply a betrayal of the purpose of the work, but also puts at risk its continued existence. Branding does not have to be a simplistic or reductive exercise, but it is absolutely necessary to any university that wishes to remain relevant in the globalised economy. Far from consisting of ‘smoke and mirrors’, effective branding seeks to present a coherent picture of academic research to the wider world.
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