What if you could create and publish your own higher education league table? Which factors would be most important to you? Would it be the same list that your students, staff, national government and research partners would create?
We’ve spent many years researching and interviewing experts on how educational organisations can be distinctive. It’s not just in response to the growing marketisation of education. It’s also driven by university leadership (and the boards that challenge them), who know that if everyone works to the same purpose, the institution is stronger because the complex network of decisions and actions in academic institutions reinforce each other. Knowing what makes you distinctive can deliver that, and in turn build a powerful brand.
Distinctiveness is not about being unique. It’s about being sufficiently different from others to be identifiable, and ideally also memorable. Through our interviews with senior staff in universities in the UK primarily, but also elsewhere in Europe and in the US, distinctiveness emerges when an institution’s leadership understand the power of creating an imperative in their strategy and want to lead change because they are ambitious for their institution. They manage their brand and reputation so that they can be distinguished from others, whether as a global superbrand or in a squeezed set of competitors.
If an institution’s strategy addresses this strategic imperative, it in turn forces priorities. That doesn’t mean that you have to stop being multidisciplinary, but it does require discussion of which factors support and will build your reputation, how you frame them, and how you can continue to be distinctly you while responding to the market and making the most of opportunities.
It all needs to begin with a robust, evidence-led process that evaluates what’s real, rare and relevant about you. Real, because what you say is special about you must be true and authentic to what your university is like; rare, because if you can’t claim any difference, it’s hard to see why you would be chosen from among the competition; and relevant, because what sets you apart must matter to the people you want to engage with.
To go back to the idea of the league table you might create: if the factors that you would list to get you to the top of a league table are simply irrelevant to your audience, you need to rethink. Your distinctiveness and your success in managing your reputation start with your knowing what your audiences think of you and whether in their mind you would pass the challenge of this three Rs test: that you are real, rare and relevant. It’s a guide that applies whether you are super or squeezed.
While the global players might seem to have it easy, their reputation imposes a burden, for it matters not only to the audiences they want to engage with but also to the world. They are expected to take the lead, to provide the experts and to be global in their outlook. It’s also hard to change a big-name reputation. Perception is reality: it doesn’t matter if your admissions are completely merit-based; if the pupil in a first-generation university family doesn’t think that’s the case, they will decide whether to apply based on their perception.
If your institution has evolved and become known for something altogether different from its current mission and strengths – or worse still, not known at all – the change imperative to address that will be a tall order. Shifting a reputation is long, sustained work.
What if you are trying to build a reputation? We’d say base it in your distinctiveness. Don’t shout a lot about a lot of things. Although that creates awareness, what you want is to stand out from others and to become known, which will come from being consistent, authentic and memorable. It could draw on exemplars, the “halo” effect of key strengths, or it could be based in how you deliver your mission, for example.
Creative communications certainly help, but building on key aspects that explain who you are and why you are different is the key to building a brand; the responsibility rests firmly with a university’s leadership. Go back to what’s real, rare and relevant in your strategy, agree your distinctiveness and follow it through.
Susannah Baker is director of the Waynflete Office at Magdalen College School.
Anna Myers is senior project manager for Dementias Platform UK at the University of Oxford.
The pair were the lead researchers on Distinct in HE, a Hefce-funded project based at Oxford Brookes University. Their book, The Challenge of Being Distinctive, will be published in August by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education