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Despite their aims, the 250 million dollars Australian Universities have spent on rebranding will only seek to trade mortarboards for buzzwords.
Last week, something curious came to light. UC Davis, an American university that had gotten itself into a bit of hot water by pepper-spraying its own protesting students in 2011, was paying consultants to clean up its tarnished reputation. And I mean that literally: for $175,000, a PR company promised to wipe all negative online postings and articles from the Internet.
Personally, I didn’t even know you could do that, but apparently you can, because in its proposal, the company told the university that it would embark on “an aggressive and comprehensive online campaign to eliminate all negative search results.” For a little more money, it would also churn out positive stories about the university and have students “clean up” their online presence. This was part of “online reputation management,” which the PR firm called “search engine optimisation.”
Apart from the obvious ethical questions this throws up, it also made me think about universities and their reputation, and how this issue has become more and more “managed” and expensive these days. UC Davis itself increased the budget for its “strategic communications office” from $2.93 million in 2009 to $5.47 million in 2015. This, though, is not just an American trend. In 2014, all Australian universities combined spent 250 million dollars on marketing and the new buzzword: branding. Let me give you a few examples. At the moment, the University of Western Sydney is “rebranding” itself as Western Sydney University. I don’t know exactly why this would make a difference, but apparently it is necessary to “make the university more competitive nationally and internationally,” as VC Barney Glover recently said. The university is currently in the middle of a “brand overhaul,” fed by focus groups and market research, and apart from the name change, this also includes a new logo, which apparently references “the local landscape.” And, of course, there is a new slogan: “Bold, Determined and Confident,” aimed to “appeal to the lucrative international student market.” All of this is going to cost 30 million dollars over three years.
Another university that recently felt the need to fix its brand was the University of Western Australia in Perth. On its website, the PR company in charge, Brand Agency Perth, proudly announced it has “created a refreshed brand identity and a distinctive new positioning,” which will make the university “more relevant and contemporary,” while “retaining its heritage.” If this language reminds you of Don Watson’s Weasel Words, listen to this: Brand Agency also did “a full redesign of their extensive suite of corporate collateral, building a unique custom typeface and a fully responsive microsite.” Sorry, what?! The result of all of this is, again, a new slogan: “Pursue Impossible,” which is illustrated with photographs of a man hacking into the Berlin Wall, a Mars lander and a female runner. Confused? Yes, so am I. But it must have been expensive. Most Australian universities now have a brand website, complete with rules, style guides, management strategies, corporate identity management, mandatory fonts and a logo. They “outline the university’s narrative,” as UNSW’s website says, and this is why this university offers one-hour workshops for staff “who want to refresh on the brand.” Monash University even has “university branding guidelines,” complete with a “compliance manual.” Freedom of speech, academic freedom, anyone?
There are a few problems here. First of all, and for me as a casual university tutor most importantly, can somebody please explain to me what branding and marketing have got to do with what universities are for: teaching and researching? At the moment, 50 percent of the income of Australian universities is spent on administration and management, and branding and PR is an ever-growing part of that. In fact, since 2000, the amount of money spent on marketing by universities has risen by 50 percent. Obviously, this is money that cannot be spent on teaching and researching. Secondly, there is absolutely no proof that it works. The aim of branding and marketing is supposedly to bring in more students (especially full fee-paying internationals), attract corporate sponsorship, research dollars, and endowment funds, compete with other universities and shore up a university’s reputation. But according to most research into the effects of university branding, it does none of this. Recently, Chrissa Favaloro wrote an article for the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, that concluded that what attracts students to a university is word of mouth, not the millions spent on branding. And even the PR gurus writing for Forbes Magazine doubt its effectiveness. They say that a reputation is built and earned, not forced into existence by glossy websites and slogans. That this might be true is, I think, proven by the fact that some of the really reputable universities, like Cambridge, Oxford and St Andrews in the UK, spend absolutely nothing on branding, marketing and advertising. They don’t have to. Even the University of Oregon has recently cancelled a 3.4 million dollar “branding contract” and is redirecting the money into “academic and research goals.” It has even decided to not hire a new Associate Vice President for media relations, instead opting to engage 100 new faculty and 40 new doctoral fellows instead. Apparently, their conclusion has been that in order to get good students and enhance your reputation, providing quality teaching and research is a better idea than spending your money on a battery of marketing people.
Because what do we get for all that money?
In Australia, the 250 million spent has given us a lot of buzzwords. And hey, I like a buzzword as much as the next person, but not if every university uses the same ones. “Inspirational,” is one, “world-leading” another. And then we’ve got “excellence,” “global,” “values,” “lifestyle,” all illustrated by happy, smiling students, of course from various ethnicities. The University of Wollongong, for example, has just gone through a rebranding and is now apparently “Creating positive change,” while being “a leader in ideas and solutions.” The University of Sydney is also leading, but this time, it is “Leading to improve the world around us.” The University of Queensland, again leading, is “Leading the world with research breakthroughs.” Tasmania is focusing on “lifestyle” and on the Sunshine Coast, it is apparently imperative to “Rise and shine.” These are all empty slogans, and again, they have got nothing to do with what should and does attract students to a place of higher learning: learning.
Now I know that students these days are treated as consumers, who play their role in academic capitalism. I also understand that a university is a “product” at the moment. An article in a recent issue of the Journal of Marketing for Higher Education even calls it a “servicescape,” whatever that is. But can we please take a breath and think about this for a moment before we go completely crazy? At least listen to Emeritus Professor Stuart Rees of the University of Sydney, who recently called the rebranding of his own university “a depressing and disabling form of managerialism.” He concluded that “management has been mistaken for leadership,” and I could not agree more. Stop it. Now.