The rise in tuition fees in the UK has changed the landscape of university education in this country. It has elevated the competition for students, faculty – and fees – from a national arena to an international one, but many universities have been slow to arm themselves for the race.
The last decade has seen bold new buildings rise and old logos redesigned as universities have started to look afresh at how they are perceived both within the academic community and the world outside. These efforts have been admirable, bringing investment and new facilities to universities, but the change, in many cases, has only been skin deep.
American universities have built powerful brands that command high value in emotional as well as tangible terms in response to a competitive environment. Stanford University, the alma mater of 30 living billionaires, 17 astronauts, and one of the leading producers of members of the United States Congress is one example of a strong university brand in the States that consistently delivers on its promise. The university’s deep-rooted belief in the importance of inter-disciplinary research is evident in everything it does: from its organisational structure, to its messaging and the environment of the university campus – evident in faculties as diverse as the d-school and the constantly evolving James H. Clark Center for bio-x research. Stanford’s brand is expressed through its courses, its facilities and its people – their brand functions not just as a visual identity, but as an organising principle.
A number of American Universities have been able to capitalise on their investment in their own brand by establishing new campuses in international locations, introducing non-campus based courses and exploiting the channels that the internet has opened. With MIT and Harvard leading the charge in giving their courses away for free through their Edx venture, we see these elite universities expand their reach. A new system of economics for university education is emerging, one that democratises university education, but makes it ever harder for universities to compete. Without a clear strategy, those universities who already struggle to justify higher fees will have an increasingly difficult job to justify any fees at all.
Those universities that might have started with new building and a refreshed logo will need commitment to an ethos and a dedication to expressing the brand through everything they do if they are to stand the test of time.