While drinking my morning draught of academic staff blood this morning, I started to rant: “I am really bothered by all these smart academics spending time thinking about the technology that could fix the UK’s productivity gap, or trying to address the challenges we’ll face living in a world blighted by climate change. Why can’t they dump all that nonsense and focus completely on their teaching?”
Then, just in time, before cancelling the morning research excellence framework 2020 strategy meeting, I remembered that the brand of my academics can sometimes be as important as the wonderful teaching that they do.
How come? Well, duh, the university’s good name is important in getting my students a job! There are, of course, people who think that it is the quality of teaching alone that will get our kids a job. But we all know that it needs both: a good name for the university and good preparation for life.
Brand is, however, a tricky business to understand, especially when there is no price to tell you which product is the best. So let’s look at a place that you may find easier to understand.
Imagine that you are in a shop where everything costs £1. I know that it sounds daft but just imagine that it is possible. If all the prices are the same, then how would you know that you were not being done? That is a serious question for a Yorkshireman.
Some of the things must be worth less than £1, and some worth more, so on average you make a decent deal by buying stuff there.
But what if you were buying only one thing in the store, such as a degree? You’d look at all the degrees on offer in the degree section of the store, and find out that they all cost the same. How do you choose?
Of course there is no problem. You choose the Calvin Klein degree. The Calvin Klein degree allows you to wear a T-shirt with Calvin Klein written on it. Some people say that you should choose a degree that allows you to get a job. But everyone knows that you only get into the posh clubs if you are wearing the right clothes.
Some of you in the store may still be thinking that you can get the Calvin Klein degree more cheaply. You look at the degree and think “can this really have cost £9,000 to make? I’d like to see the breakdown in cost.” This is, of course, completely daft. The brand is not made up purely of costed elements. You understand, because you are not some dopey Marxist, that value depends not just on the cost of the labour involved.
The biggest element of the brand for a product comes from the creative abilities of the people who make it. They create the real value for those who wear the shirt. And it’s the brand that counts!
So what’s the difference when choosing a real university? Not a lot.
Universities know that their reputation in research is crucial to whether they can attract the brightest and the best. The best academics will do great things for their students, for their communities, and the world in which we live. People will notice what they do, and that is important to us all.
Individual academics develop their brand because we encourage them to be the best scholars that they can be. Their brand is a crucial part of the university’s brand, and hence the brand of a student going for a job. That is why Chinese parents choose a university by brand. They understand the world (and have given up Marxism as they know it doesn’t work).
And they are, of course, generally right in choosing by brand. The clever faculty and students of a university with a strong research reputation make for a superb network. And without a strong reputation to back you, the excellent skills you picked up from the great teaching might never be given a chance.
The great universities in the UK know this. They want the very best teaching to be done by the best scholars. They are right to want this and, I would venture, most parents would agree.
Sir Keith Burnett is the vice-chancellor of the University of Sheffield.