Posts Tagged ‘UK’
The academic and practitioner literature which surrounds branding would seem exhaustively to have discussed all of the possible ways in which the brand experience can be crafted within businesses. In contrast, however, the literature on the ways in which higher education institutions (“HEIs”) formulate and think about their brands is sparse. Whilst some of the principles which apply to universities are similar to those within the business sector, such institutions actually think somewhat differently about themselves, and the way in which their brand experience operates.
Of course, the first thing to realise about most HEIs within the UK is that they do not think very much about the brand experience at all. The majority of branding work within universities is still relegated to the marketing department, rather than being treated as an integral part of the academic sector. Many academics view branding as a dirty word, not wanting their work to be packaged and sold in the same way as a chocolate bar might be. As one might expect, this attitude leads to most HEIs within the UK presenting a disparate and confused brand to their potential ‘customers’.
Those HEIs which have crafted a successful branding experience have usually explicitly realised the necessity of defining their own brand, and of identifying their unique selling point. In the academic sector, the ‘customers’ to whom the brand experience is important can be seen as the students whom the HEI is attempting to recruit, and the academics whom it is attempting to employ. If a university wishes to differentiate itself from the herd, then a unique brand experience is key. An example of this can be found at Loughborough University, which has been highly successful in leveraging its initial investment into sports infrastructure and technology into a world-wide brand around sports excellence. In order to do this, Loughborough identified its existing strengths, and made an active decision to focus its marketing and branding efforts around them. Simply put, it has been more successful than most in promoting its unique selling point. This is so much the case that students in other subject at Loughborough often complain that people assume they are studying for a sports science degree!
The numerous undifferentiated HEIs across the UK could learn more from Loughborough’s experience than the simple importance of defining one’s unique selling point. The university has also been adept at making use of free and/or cheap publicity, both by hosting high profile sporting events such as the Loughborough International athletics meeting, and leveraging the profile of famous and successful alumni. Other HEIs have not had to make such a proactive effort to achieve the same level of publicity, with already famous institutions such as Oxford attracting it as a matter of course. Oxford’s brand recognition, for example, cannot have been harmed by being the weekly subject of the TV programme Lewis (and before it, Inspector Morse). The suggestion that the city is a hotbed of murder and intrigue, of course, might have been less useful!
All joking aside, smart organisations align themselves not only with their existing strengths, but with the appeal of their geographical location. Whilst the University of Oxford is a special case given its existing brand strength, the same effect can be seen through an examination of the city’s other university, Oxford Brookes. That organisation has made a point of playing up the refined atmosphere of the dreaming spires, even though it is actually situated to the east of the historical Oxford city centre. Those managing Oxford Brookes’ brand experience know that the reputation of its sister university can be used to their advantage, and have not been slow to do so.
Rugby match between Oxford University and Oxford Brookes University
Whatever the unique selling point and free publicity which is leveraged for it, however, no brand experience can substitute for the reality of an institution’s advantages and disadvantages. Too often, brand managers seem to believe that they can weave a story which will eliminate the actual weaknesses of their organisation and the courses it offers. Such a strategy cannot last for long. Again, Oxford Brookes can be used as an example. Its postgraduate legal offering ran into trouble this year, suffering as a result of the downturn in the economy and the resulting lack of demand for the vocational training required to become a solicitor. Whilst it attempted to sell its course using the traditional attractions of its location, and its unique selling point of partnership with the University of Oxford, the best brand experience techniques were no match for the blunt economic realities of the legal market. Above all, brands must be aligned with reality, if they are to survive. If HEIs manage this, identify their unique selling point correctly, and take advantage of free publicity, they will be well on their way to successful differentiation.
Inspector Morse Image (Copyright ITV) http://www.guardian.co.uk/travel/2009/jun/07/morse-oxford-walking-guide1
Oxford Rugby Match Image http://www.sport.ox.ac.uk/student-sport/clubs-colleges/
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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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