German universities ‘should create brand personalities’

German institutions should learn from car firms to better attract top talent, say researchers

November 6, 2016
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Spot the difference: most institutions ‘do not capitalise on their mission statements by substantially differentiating themselves from their competitors’, says the paper

German universities remain homogeneous in their “brand personalities”, despite a government initiative creating competition in research funding, and they should look at car companies' example to do better on attracting talent domestically and internationally, according to researchers.

Heidelberg University, founded in 1386, fails to make use of its “unique proposition” as Germany’s oldest university, while one of the nation’s few private universities is one of the only institutions to create a distinct brand, says a paper published online in Tertiary Education and Management. The research uses a software-based analysis of universities’ online mission statements.

The study finds that German universities tend to emphasise institutional qualities including “innovativeness” and “reliability”. Most institutions “do not capitalise on their mission statements by substantially differentiating themselves from their competitors,” say the authors, Dominik Erhardt of DIA Consulting and Alexander von Kotzebue of the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology.

German higher education is publicly funded, and tuition fees have recently been phased out by the country’s regional governments. It has traditionally followed an egalitarian model, with a lesser degree of hierarchy between institutions than a nation such as England.

The Excellence Initiative, which has allocated extra research funding to "clusters of excellence" and selected institutions since 2006, alters that model in research to some extent. Cornelia Quennet-Thielen, state secretary in Germany’s Ministry of Education and Research, told Times Higher Education earlier this year that “more differentiation within the university system with regard to research” is one of the aims “successfully” achieved by the Excellence Initiative.

The Excellence Initiative, by aiming to foster differentiation, should not only create competition for research funding but also engender “the creation of an image, or a brand personality” for individual institutions, says the paper, titled “Competition unleashed: horizontal differentiation in German higher education”.

But it singles out the private Witten/Herdecke University as a rare example of an institution that creates “a brand personality” in its mission statement by communicating “basic values such as freedom, personal responsibility and equal opportunities”.

The authors conclude: “Only very few [German universities] position themselves by means of unique characteristics, perceptively distinguish themselves from their competitors, and display a strategic focus on singularity.”

Dr Erhardt told Times Higher Education that if German universities created more differentiated “brands”, it could give them “an advantage in the competition for…talented students, renowned scientists and industrial partners” in Germany and internationally.

German universities could emphasise their long traditions (Germany has many of Europe’s oldest universities) as well as the “cultural attributes” of their regions to attract international students, he argued.

But universities “don't take advantage of their potential,” Dr Erhardt said. “In an export-intensive country like Germany the HEIs could have a look [at] other industries like the automotive sector and see how companies develop a strategy of differentiation and successfully attracting international customers.”

john.morgan@tesglobal.com

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