Universities are not immune to the growing complexities infiltrating everyday life, and truly adept university leaders must heed and understand these changes as they shape the future of higher education. Working in the university sector for over 25 years, Paul Baines is currently Professor of Political Marketing and Deputy Dean for Strategic Projects at the University of Leicester. He is also a councillor for Charnwood Borough Council, lending local insight and understanding of the complex political environment in which universities find themselves today.
‘The truth is that the political environment is very, very complex of course [. . .] there are so many things going onat the moment, not just in the general political environment but even within the university political environment [and the] university economic environment, it’s just a hugely complex area’.
Within this climate, there is a need for universities to become distinctive: ultimately, this means building a unique university brand. With the understanding that branding is a topic that is not necessarily well-liked within the academic community, brand is still pivotal to universities. Indeed, Paul notes that brand is ‘hugely important, because [universities] live and die off the backs of their reputations. When a university does do something wrong, then it can seriously damage that university’s recruitment [. . .] brand is everything’. In an environment where every accreditation, ranking and measurement is taken very seriously, institutions would do well to ensure that any brand strategy is treated with equal weight.
In comparing companies and universities (and their respective outlooks on branding and stakeholders) companies take the external view very seriously, whereas universities often take on board student and prospective student opinions but have very weak market research capabilities. Paul explains that ‘universities do take threats to their reputation very seriously’ but there seems to be a serious blind spot when it comes to communicating with and receiving feedback from their stakeholders, which may ultimately be a detriment to future programme development:
‘The brand is quite important in helping people understand what they can get from a particular higher education programme, and sometimes that’s more or less recognised by different sets of consumers. But one should always be questioning them on what they think about what you’re offering so you can tailor your programmes accordingly’.
Universities are listening to their stakeholders to a limited extent, but not as much as they should be, leaving them too slow to transform themselves in our digital age. This cuts short any feedback loop inherent in successful brand strategies. Paul examines the selective attention paid to certain audiences and the repercussions this may have on student satisfaction:
‘[Universities] listen to some of their publics more than others, and if I’m honest that probably follows the money. So, they’ll listen to the regulators and their funding councils and so on – especially because they must – otherwise they wouldn’t get the money. [. . .] In the UK since it’s become a more marketized industry [. . .] perhaps they’re starting to think about listening to [students] more but most universities are nowhere near as student orientated as, perhaps, they should be’.
The obvious and continued need for funding will further drive the commercialisation of higher education going forward as government money previously used to prop up universities dries up. Institutions must adapt and alternative sources of funding found increasingly, this can be seen as coming from companies in various guises. Paul explains the growing role of companies in HE:
‘Universities will have to start to offer much more industry-focussed curriculum content that leads to specified employment pathways, certain types of jobs. [. . .] What we’re starting to see is a much stronger recognition that companies must be part of the conversation of A: what universities teach and B: what they research’.
The difficult choices wrought from the changing way in which universities are being funded have vast repercussions into the future. The growing need to involve companies from both a financial perspective and in ensuring student employment and satisfaction beyond university are considerations that leaders should take on board. Such choices call in to question the role of the university and its subsequent brand, ultimately defining the university itself. Paul explains that an institution can’t be an all-encompassing entity, and leaders should instead be focusing on specialising what they’re all about:
‘Branding is quite complex, what do you want to be known for? And in which areas? [. . .] You can’t be all things to all people. Some universities don’t have a medical school, some are highly specialist and operate a largely postgraduate-only model or a largely research-based model. [. . .] There’s a choice to be made about what kind of university you want to be, and that then ties in to “what do you think the role of [the] university actually is?”’
Paul emphasises that universities should make their course portfolios leaner and more specific in order to be agile. This will also help contribute to the brand itself the unique qualities and offerings of the institution so it will begin to stand out. Universities that are able to strategise in this way will not only be able to adapt to today’s changing environment but will also put themselves in good stead as we move into the future.
‘I do think that there is a need for universities to consolidate their provision, to really think about their portfolio. And in some cases, this is about differentiating, and the way to differentiate of course is to cross certain departments’ provision with other departments. That’s much more difficult to copy. If you have a specialism, say, like the University of Leicester does in Space and Space Applications and Data and Satellite Engineering and so on, then mixing that with Business say, or with Infomatics makes a lot of sense and is much more difficult to copy. So, I think what universities should be doing is stopping trying to be all things to all people and building much more distinctive research and teaching combinations’.
Leaders must make realistic decisions about which programmes stay and which need to go. Increasingly, institutions must do this to stay financially viable. Specificity will ultimately contribute to a cohesive and understandable brand strategy that does not try to do too many things at once. Paul’s visionary message involves designing the programmes that future students will need, as digital natives enter a rapidly changing working world that universities must meet head-on:
‘It’s about designing the programmes that future cohorts of students are going to need, and this is the key thing – it’s also about designing the process by which that’s delivered, and that will need to change from what it currently is.’
If you would like to explore how you can build your stakeholder awareness – and tailor your brand strategy accordingly – get in touch with us here at The Brand Education. We offer thought leadership and workshops and we’re always excited to hear from you.
You can also listen to Paul’s full conversation on our podcast with The Brand Education CEO Zeenat Fayaz here.