There has been much to think about in universities in the last 18 months, adjusting to short-term emergencies such as campus closures, shifts online and revenue hits.
There has also been cause to reconsider how universities are set for the medium term regarding what they stand for, their reputation and how they look after their people.
University brand positions have varied, in some regards, yet they have still had much in common within competitor groups. Even more broadly, most claim to be changing lives, shaping futures, pursuing excellence, serving the community, and being job-ready. Each ranking that comes out appears to lead to 39 claims of being in the top five for this, or the top 2 per cent for that. We are all the best in the state for one thing, or the best in Australia for another.
But is the net effect that, largely, we all look the same?
There has been similar commonality in portraying brand through student experiences, with much imagery of cosmopolitan and vibrant campuses full of social interaction. Other enduring images of pre-2020 campaigns were universities offering degrees that gave passports to the world, and experiences and jobs in London, Singapore, New York or Dubai. The hero shots and videos, of graduates and students, knocking on the doors of executives, in google-like workplaces around the globe, will be difficult to authenticate for a while.
The last 18 months have softened our assertions of both purpose and student opportunity in the higher education sector. Our ability to deliver experiences that match the brand has been taken away from us. The claim that you can come to University X and make a better future for the planet, or go to University Y and travel to San Francisco on exchange, are all harder to substantiate in a global pandemic.
Promoting an invitation to be in the physical presence of the nation’s best teachers, on shiny new campuses, networking with equally enthusiastic fellow students from all over the world, is likely to do more harm than good when yet another semester of study looks likely to be confined to a largely unsatisfactory online experience. The calls to forthcoming open days will be interesting to watch as brands get reasserted and restated for 2022.
Strategies of universities appear to be difficult to budge, too. The dominant sentiment for leaders, staff and students remains survival over re-invention. There are gestures to increase localised industry and community engagement here, and changes of emphasis in the extent and form of online, blended and hybrid delivery there. The herd instinct means that just about everyone is attempting to offer industry experience and employability to just about every student. But despite enduring changes to revenue streams, and repeated calls from all corners for new business models, they remain largely unchanged.
Indeed, as some vice-chancellors observe, the ubiquitous Australian university business model is largely a function of the funding and registration models that all are required to operate under. With our 40th university now approved, after satisfying the requirement to operate largely the same as the existing 39, this appears unlikely to change anytime soon.
However, what does vary is what it feels like to work, study at, or partner at each university. The people all come from similar paths into university careers as academic or professional staff. But the extent to which there are different strategies and brands, and the impact their leaders make, do create distinct values, expectations and cultures among their people.
In other sectors, the most successful businesses are based on a model where brand, strategy and culture align. The most successful tech companies, that blossomed through the last 18 months, have clear and often differentiated strategies, around which great brand reputations have been built. But their staff, customers and shareholders see no enduring benefit from those brands and strategies unless their experiences match expectations those brands and strategies have created. And those experiences are entirely down to culture.
One of the most distinct brand strategies of an Australian university is widely perceived to be the 'University for the Real World' positioning of QUT. Its founding vice-chancellor, Denis Gibson, presided over the launch of that brand soon after QUT was formed in 1989. It followed being named University of the Year and was a response to a competitor’s claim, in a local media campaign, to be the real university. Denis talked about the origin of that brand strategy in one of the very first HEDx podcast episodes accessible here.
Peter Coaldrake as VC ran with, and further evolved that brand strategy, with much success for nearly 15 years. Now, 32 years after it was launched, the brand strategy is being restated and reasserted with a new promotion campaign that has just gone to air. You can see how the brand is being re-interpreted for current times here.
Margaret Sheil as QUT’s third VC, outlined in last week’s HEDx podcast, how the concept of a ‘real world’ university is being reinterpreted for the very different real world in which we currently live. She explains how it underpins her push to integrate research with teaching and learning programs, and with engaging end-users, philanthropic support and investors in commercialisation. She explains how it has guided the organisational change QUT is working through, as its response to the financial hit from revenue lost through the pandemic.
This is commendable as an evolving and enduring brand strategy. But Margaret herself acknowledges the undoubted importance, and challenge, of aligning her people and the culture with that way of setting expectations for staff, students and partners. The experiences all will have of that, or any other university, comes ultimately down to culture.
Culture is created by the actions and impact of leaders, and by other evidence-based attempts we might make to shape it. And it is the area where HEDx has great experience from other sectors, and from universities around the world, in interventions that are changing higher education for good.
Martin Betts is emeritus professor at Griffith University and founder of HEDx.Do you have an idea for a story?
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