Not quite as advertised: college scarves and shameless flannel

The prospectus's weathered cloisters and flawless cheekbones are alluring, admits John Brinnamoor, but a dash of realism mightn't hurt

March 13, 2008

I have to admit that the picture was excellent and fully justified the extensive use made of it as the masthead image of the recruitment campaign. The framing was just right: the mellow gold of the old sandstone cloister on a sunlit autumn afternoon was perfectly balanced by the drift of fallen leaves at the edge of the lawn. The auburn of her flowing curls nicely complemented her flawless peach-smooth skin and perfect cheekbones. The dying sun, or perhaps a cleverly contrived fill-in flash, gave her eyes a highlight that imbued the portrait with vibrancy indicative of intelligence, self-confidence and a passion for learning and life in equal measure. If pressed, you might suggest that the college scarf was a bit too good to be true - but how could you criticise it when the green stripe denoting her faculty matched her sensible wool jacket and her eyes so perfectly?

Yes, general opinion in the coffee room was that this charming young woman would win hundreds of extra applications even before anyone opened the prospectus. We agreed that the image delivered a set of emotional constructs that played to a number of susceptibilities: she embodied the future you sought for your daughter, she portrayed the witty and vivacious girl you wanted as your best friend in college, she was the one you would pick out from your first-year seminar group as the one most likely to succeed you in academia and (for quite a few of the men among us) she was the stolen memory of the lover you never had as an undergraduate.

This last point was reinforced recently in discussion with one of my more talkative tutorial students. We were discussing something related to corporate marketing strategies when I mentioned the college prospectus and nodded to the publicity poster on the notice board.

He sighed, and his face adopted the defocused look that students tend to have just before they vomit the remains of last night's excess. As I brought a litter bin within range, he sighed again and confided: "I never found her, you know. The girl in the picture ... ".

As he sipped his bottled water, the whole sorry story came out. The publicity had worked: he had decided that if the college was filled with babes like that - "you know, fit birds" - it was definitely the place for him. Well, if that made him put extra effort into his A2s, however prurient his intent, that's fine with me, but his problems really started when he won his place and joined us.

"I looked for her everywhere," he muttered in desolate tones. It turned out that he had hung around the cloisters - risking pneumonia and pigeon attack - for hours on end hoping to bump into her. He had even - to the tumultuous derision of his newfound mates - bought a college scarf. I commiserated, but couldn't bring myself to tell him that the photo is now several years old, and the young lady in question has been a successful postdoc in the American Midwest for some time.

I ended up stuck with a mental image of how pointedly the colours of the scarf would contrast with his piercings, distressed denim, thrash metal T-shirt, greasy locks and acne. It was not a picture I wanted in my head, let alone in the prospectus. But then I thought, hang on ... why not? He is, in his way, just as illustrative of the student body as the corporately selected vision that adorns the paperwork and website.

Furthermore, since the buildings around the cloisters aren't used for teaching, and are therefore essentially off-limits to undergraduates, why are they always featured so prominently in the publicity? While nobody would want to rob us completely of iconic imagery, why not include some people and places that add a hint of pragmatic realism to the mix?

So here is a suggestion for all you vice-chancellors out there. Have a look at your publicity material, then take a wander around the campus on a wet Tuesday afternoon and see how well it matches up. We gnarled old custodians and our tribes of stumbling undergraduate acolytes may not all be works of art - I certainly have no illusions on this point - and the teaching spaces, with their painfully neutral magnolia decor and heavy emphasis on cracked plasterboard, may not all win design awards. But how much does that really matter to the student experience?

Go ahead and sell your target group an academic vision that they can aspire to, but please make it one that they stand an outside chance of recognising on arrival.

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