What makes a university great? It’s the brand, stupid!

Sir Keith Burnett, vice-chancellor of the University of Sheffield, takes a sideways look at the power of university brands

September 22, 2015
poundland, poundworld, pound shop

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.

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Reader's comments (2)

An open letter to Keith Burnett from the ‘dopy’ Sheffield Marxists. We, as the ‘dopy’ Marxists that you candidly misjudge, felt it was necessary to respond to your ridiculous comments that you posted on the university website and on the Times Higher Education website. You may think that these throw away, supposedly humorous comments about Marxists, the poor and the stereotyped people of Yorkshire will appeal to your thoroughly patronised audience and will create a convincing veil behind which hides your prejudices and lack of understanding of the lives of real people. But you are sadly mistaken. It is unsurprising that someone who lives on a minimum of £370,000 a year in a literal red brick tower would not see the existence of the pound shop from so high above the reality of ordinary people. Hence your ridiculous and nonsensical analogy which simultaneously exposes how far removed from the lives of your own students and their families you are, whilst demonstrating your complete lack of fashion sense. The proliferation of pound shops across the country, on which many people are dependent, is a direct consequence of the ongoing crisis of capitalism and poverty wages that you pay your own staff and that many of your graduates go on to earn despite the supposed good ‘brand’ that you tout. Currently over 58% of students who graduate go on to a non-graduate job. We don’t have the figures for the Sheffield graduates but it is surly not exceptional to this national situation despite ‘our’ exceptional brand. You clearly have no understanding of the current job market for graduates, where highly qualified young people find themselves working in unskilled jobs far below their abilities simply because there is nothing else to do. As big business cannot foresee making additional profits we have a situation of historically low investment, thus a chronically low productivity rate, which is 15% lower than expected before the 2008 financial crisis. This has in turn lead to millions of zero hour jobs, precarious living situations and attacks on the right to organise through the Tory trade union bill. You attack the Marxists as ‘dopy’ as we uphold the labour theory of value. Unsurprising in your hatchet job of an article is your lack of attacks upon other proponents of this similar theory. Where are the attacks on Aristotle, Adam Smith and David Ricardo? You accuse us of being dopy yet the real reason for your denunciation of Marxists is because the complete opposite is true. We are the only real challenge to your privileged life and that of your class. The labour theory of value has become an anathema in bourgeois circles, not least because of its revolutionary implications. Initially, the labour theory of value was a very useful weapon to the rising bourgeoisie, when, as a progressive class, they used it to strike blows against the politically powerful landowning class. But once the battle was won, the bourgeoisie no longer had any use for such a theory. In fact, for the now dominant bourgeoisie, the theory was discredited and a quick retreat to mysticism prevailed. Value is now ultimately subjective. Bound up with the completely unquantifiable. We agree completely with your statement that we ‘want the very best teaching to be done by the very best scholars’. But we understand that this can only be achieved if we create a society in which academic freedom is possible free from the chains of market driven research and the need to deliver education as a ‘product’. This can only be achieved through free universal access to education, with a living grant for all potential students and a huge increase in funding in schools in order to provide equal opportunities to access higher education. Through the democratic ownership of the banks and big business we could begin to achieve the funding necessary to achieve ‘the very best teaching to be done by the very best scholars.’ Capitalism offers none of these opportunities. They are only achievable through a Socialist society. The Sheffield Marxist demand: Free education for all! The abolishment of student debt! The introduction of a living grant for students! The nationalisation of the banking system and major monopolies under democratic workers control to use their vast resources to invest in public services! And an end to obscenely high pay for university management!
I can't really understand why Keith Burnett, the Vice-Chancellor (VC), is having a swipe at 'the' Chinese, Marxists and dope? Maybe he's confusing branding with generalisation or attempting some form of creative mark-making? His language doesn't seem very academic and I agree he's not too street wise. Weird! But of course the VC is promoting himself here and his / the uni house-style, I guess that's his role, he's front-of-house-man after all, got to say something I suppose or has he? If only his opinion was peer reviewed, might make more sense and connect better. Oh well, creeping anti-intellectualism stems from the very top.

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