What is so wrong with branding in higher education?

Students get an advantage if they are steeped not just in particular industries but in particular firms, says Nick Isles

July 22, 2022
A giant sign reading "Brand" on scaffolding
Source: iStock

At Condé Nast College of Fashion and Design, we don’t just wear our brand association on our sleeve, we’re covered in it from head to foot. Many in education can be a little sniffy about such an alignment, but my time as CEO here has led me to believe that partnerships between named brands and educational institutions are here to stay – and they could even become the norm rather than the exception.

One of the reasons students come to study with us is that they know that what they learn and the networks they join will give them a head start when it comes to landing a job in the fashion and design sector – not least with one of the world’s biggest brands.

I can already see lips curling as I write this, but is it so wrong to tailor education to employment in this way? Don’t students study beyond the school-leaving age specifically to make themselves more employable? What’s more, if the quality of teaching and learning on offer is high (as I would absolutely say it is here), why would we criticise?

There seem to be two attitudes to higher education. One regards it as a public good that is primarily about intellectual enrichment, love of learning and development of character. The other is that it is purely a means to an end: a passport to prosperity. But there is no earthly reason why we should not combine both concepts. Is it so hard to imagine that a student could blossom as an individual by bathing in the warm, nourishing waters of academe while also making themselves more employable because of a commercial association?

The attractions of such associations for brands are multiple. There is the tangible benefit of students becoming steeped in the knowledge and behaviours not only of the industry in general but also of their firm in particular. There is also the fact that companies like Condé Nast offer a rich diversity of knowledge and experience that should be engaged with through an educational lens. Some would call this knowledge exchange. Others might see it as a way of such organisations “giving something back” to society.

The modern, Anglo-Saxon, neoliberal view of higher education as essentially a transactional investment aimed at getting a job may be distasteful to some, but look at it from the student’s perspective. We make them pay for their learning these days, so why shouldn’t they expect something financially beneficial in return? If you want that certificate demonstrating your wherewithal to practise in an industry, why not get it from one of the very companies for whom you wish to work?

If you want to make shoes, why wouldn’t you want to go to the Jimmy Choo Academy run by the London Fashion Academy? If you want to be a journalist, why would you look beyond The School of the New York Times? Would anyone be put off applying for a course at the Sotheby’s Institute of Art because of the association with a commercial auctioneer?

In the UK, further education expresses none of the snobbery about commercial tie-ups that higher education does. The most recent FE White Paper, as well as many subsequent public pronouncements from ministers, exhort colleges to forge closer links with business to ensure they are teaching the skills needed in their local economies. Companies at many colleges are closely involved in writing curricula, but nobody seems to suggest that that is the thin end of any nefarious wedge.

By way of example, Timpson, the key-cutter and shoe-mender, has a longstanding partnership with the prison services, run by FE colleges, which provides it with a steady pipeline of new employees. Timpson has never claimed that this is an entirely philanthropic venture; the company benefits commercially from having people ready and trained to fill its vacancies when they leave jail. Yet no one questions the scheme’s social benefit. Is that because its graduates are less likely to reoffend – or because they haven’t paid for their course?

Universities should not underestimate the appetite of big brands to have people trained specifically for them. Look at the tens of billions of dollars spent by behemoths like Google and Microsoft in producing courses to improve expertise in using their software. Yes, it’s about profit: the aim is to lock-in thousands of IT staff around the world to using and recommending the firms’ products over the course of their careers. But make no mistake, the quality of the education and training received by those taking these courses is of a very high calibre indeed.

Perhaps it is time for universities to fully embrace the commercial world. The owners of sports stadia have benefited from naming rights for years. We could have the Walkers Crisps University of the East of England, or the McDonalds’ University of Wessex? I am joking, but not entirely.

The student loan system absolutely imposes a commercial mindset on higher education. Isn’t it time we stopped being half-hearted about it?

Nick Isles is CEO of Condé Nast College of Fashion and Design.

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Reader's comments (4)

I think you just mean, by and large, vocational training; and, yes, there should be more of it. It's possible what you have in mind is some hybrid - half of courses being more of the type that are being delivered now, and have vocational, but that is unstable, it will devolve into vocational training once the students realize (and push for) what 'counts'.
This piece of ignorant self-promotion makes no logical or factual sense. None. Did Conde Nast pay for its publication, too?
Yes, who cares about snobby things like critical thinking, well-roundedness, or quality? The core function of universities is to sell job certificates. If corporate branding and sponsorship increases the number of job certificates we can sell, then it's obviously a good thing that is aligned with our core function. The best thing about this mass manufacture of job certificates is the big brands you mention get a steady stream of naive, competent graduates with depressed salary expectations. If they can keep hiring eager, replaceable young engineers at half the salary of someone ten years' older (or less), they're essentially getting a large, regular public subsidy. It's a win-win both for the higher education sector and private industry.
This appears to be an advert. All UK universities are acutely aware of branding, some are better at it than others. All institutions i have been associated with have fallen over themselves to associate with credible employers. No lip curling there!


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