From where I sit - Logos do not deliver popularity

September 23, 2010

I bumped into a colleague the other day who expressed her relief at the outcome of the Australian election. The result had hung in the balance for two weeks and could have gone either way before Labor's eventual "triumph".

"Thank God the other lot didn't get in!" she exclaimed. "It would have been very bad for us (tertiary educators). We would have gone backwards, certainly."

Despite the result, there is no contentment among Australian academics at the moment. Funding shortfalls, workforce casualisation, ever-expanding paperwork and the pressure to produce research quantity (not necessarily quality) have all contributed to low morale at many - dare I say all? - Australian universities.

Worse is to come, we are told, and that is partly because international-student numbers are declining in the wake of Australia's very high financial requirements for student visas compared with those issued in the UK and the US.

For example, as I read this week in a briefing note to staff at one Group of Eight university, an international undergraduate applying for an Australian visa has to prove that he or she has three years' worth of tuition fees plus annual living allowances of A$18,000 (£10,800). That means the student must have up to £90,300 in the bank for the six months leading up to the visa application. The authorities also investigate where the money comes from.

By comparison, the briefing note adds, Britain requires a deposit of about £24,700 for only 28 days leading up to the application. For the US, there are no particular requirements and visas are granted immediately, whereas the Australian equivalent takes months.

This is one problem that needs to be addressed. However, there is a feeling among many academics I know that at least there is a chance they will be listened to with Prime Minister Julia Gillard, sworn in on 14 September, in charge.

But even if visa requirements are relaxed and more international students come here with all their lovely money, there is still the problem of the university system itself. It is cumbersome, overly micro-managed, technologically antiquated, drowning in unnecessary paperwork and suffering from the application of marketing mumbo-jumbo.

Universities spend infinitely more time and energy worrying about branding issues such as logos than they do about what really delivers popularity: the power of social networking among students and alumni.

Tweets or Facebook reviews that praise a university are worth squillions more than a tidy logo and an advertising jingle.

It does not matter whether the logo is blue, red or mauve, nor what font it features; students do not care about such things and neither do parents. They do care about the quality of the education they get for their hard-earned money, however, and that goes equally for international students.

In an article in the The Australian's higher education supplement on 15 September, China's ambassador to Australia, Zhang Junsai, calls for better management of tertiary education at government and university levels. That, plus an emphasis on quality, will bring international students back, even if it costs them more, he says. Hear, hear.

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