Universities seem to be embracing their newly acquired status as businesses.
Many vice-chancellors now earn salaries twice that of the prime minister’s, and senior staff are said to be making good use of their corporate expense accounts.
But it is those tasked with marketing universities who are arguably most steeped into the cut-and-thrust of the business world. Aware that their institution must stand out from the crowd in the face of fierce competition, they are all becoming increasingly astute at promoting the uniqueness of their brand.
The first task in marketing a product is to identify what exactly it is that makes it different from – and better than – the rest.
I recently asked a group of Chinese students in Durham the reason for their choice of university. I was expecting them to cite league table position – Chinese are very status-conscious – but that didn’t get a mention. “Harry Potter,” they replied in unison.
I was flabbergasted, not least because I had no idea that Durham University had any connection with Harry Potter. And yet these students assured me that all the Chinese websites state that Durham is the place to go for a Hogwarts-style university experience.
When I looked into this, I discovered that what connection there is, is tenuous, at best.
It is true that Durham Cathedral’s ancient cloisters provide the setting for a scene in the very first Harry Potter film. However, when it comes to film locations, both Alnwick and Oxford have arguably stronger claims: the exterior of Alnwick Castle is Hogwarts, and Christ Church College, Oxford, provides the setting for the famous scenes in the Great Hall.
One advantage that Durham does have, however, is a course on Harry Potter. This has been on offer for several years now, and it may be the reason – either by accident or design – for Durham University’s being seen as the “Harry Potter University”.
Martin Richardson, the academic who runs the course, explained that it all started during a research project in Austria when he described his place of work to a colleague.
His description of Durham – with its professors, gowns and formal dinners – prompted the colleague to remark that it sounded “just like Harry Potter”. He agreed that it did, a bit, and then proceeded to incorporate those observations into his lectures.
It was a small step to expand these into an entire module, placing the Harry Potter phenomenon in its historical, social and cultural context.
While the course was no doubt introduced for its educational value, those marketing Durham to the Chinese must have been thrilled to bits. They had been handed a USP (unique selling point, to the uninitiated) on a plate.
The Harry Potter brand is worth an estimated £19 billion, which makes it one of the most commercially successful media franchises of all time. Moreover, Harry Potter is hugely popular in China, which sends more students to UK universities than any other non-European Union country.
These students are highly valued and keenly sought after because they pay tuition fees at the international rate. And if Durham is slightly embarrassed about being sold to the Chinese on the back of a dubious claim that it’s “just like Harry Potter”, it is not admitting it. It is certainly doing nothing to dispel the notion.
It’s worth remembering that Harry Potter is a fictional character and Hogwarts, the boarding school for witchcraft and wizardry, a figment of J. K. Rowling’s imagination. Moreover, the books are locked into an imagined, romantic past of billowing gowns, formal dinners, coats of arms and letters on parchment.
Durham may make much of its ancient (some might say, anachronistic) rituals and traditions, but when the Chinese students first arrive in Durham before the start of term for their pre-sessional courses, they will see more hen parties out in town than formal dinners.
However, in today’s fiscal climate, anything that will attract the attention of international students – and the income they generate for the university – is fair game.
When questioned about the themes in the Harry Potter books, Rowling has stated that we should “not assume that the establishment or the press tells you all of the truth”.
She could extend this remark to include Chinese websites, and her Chinese fans would do well to heed her advice.
Madeleine Ferrar is a freelance writer who has worked as a tutor at Durham University teaching English for academic purposes.