In a recent feature for Times Higher Education, Fred Inglis, honorary professor of cultural history at the University of Warwick, was unequivocal in his denunciation of universities’ infatuation with marketing and branding.
“The most abominable monster now threatening the intellectual health and the integrity of pure enquiry as well as conscientious teaching is the language of advertising, or better, the machinery of propaganda,” he wrote.
The growing focus on universities’ “brands” has, of course, been frequently discussed in our pages. Last year we reported on a presentation by Patrick Freeland-Small, then the chief marketing officer at the University of Melbourne, who compared the notional brand value of leading universities to those of leading corporations, based on the value of their net assets and their performance in reputation rankings.
Harvard University was ranked seventh with a brand value of $37 billion (£23 billion), not far below brand superheavyweights Google and Apple.
Stanford, Yale and Princeton universities and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, meanwhile, were each said to have a brand value in excess of $10 billion.
But Professor Inglis’ position has found common cause online.
“Universities are meant to transcend this slickly-grubby reality – bastions of intellectual integrity upon pedestals of pedagogic granite,” observes Kate Brittain on her blog ladybrittain.
“A narrative of marketisation has overwhelmed higher education in Britain, [with] increased student fees the most notable manifestation of changes that have rendered universities ever more vulnerable to and aware of competition.”
Ms Brittain, a recent graduate of the University of Oxford, notes that her institution is no exception. It is not just “recognisable simply because its heritage is noble and romantically gothic, rooted in good ol’ British history”, but also because of its brand.
“Universities are huge, multifaceted conglomerations that increasingly exist on a global scale…It is reasonable for universities to want to promote their activity, draw people in and share their work with as wide a group as possible,” she adds.
But, Ms Brittain argues, what should not be allowed is a slide into the language used to maintain these aspects. Referring to students as “consumers” reduces them to “passive sponges to marketing guff” and not “proactive partners” in learning.
“Branding should only ever act as a doorway, a mechanism with which students can usefully decide where they want to pursue a degree, something with which they can engage,” she concludes.
Professor Inglis’ points also found favour on Twitter. Matt Waring (@MattWaring3), senior lecturer in human resource management at Cardiff Metropolitan University, said that the arguments put forward in the feature were “bang on the money – all too true sadly”.
However, praise was not universal. Chas Brickland (@HaizyDaiz), a senior administrative officer at the University of Southampton, said the article was a “bit down” on non-academics when academics were sometimes the ones pushing to fill courses.
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