This article explores the importance of branding for high-level educational institutions, particularly newer players in the Indian educational context. Preceding this in terms of importance, the necessity of ethical integrity in corporate governance is a vital primary goal for universities in establishing a trusted and valued reputation.
With a towering rise in university fees and a competitive marketplace, university branding exercises have become essential for developing the impressions of students and parents regarding choice of institution. Branding activities are also pivotal in attracting faculty and staff, and in receiving successful media attention. Students are likely to choose universities with popular faculty members and robust departmental expectations. Parents and students research value for money in terms of student experience, academic integrity, and above all, future employability.
The American Marketing Association (AMA) definition of a brand is “a name, term, sign, symbol, or design, or a combination of them, intended to identify the goods and services of one seller or group of sellers and to differentiate them from those of competitors”. The brand always provides us with some sort of information, especially in terms of experience and product quality. Well-reputed universities are an obvious choice for students and faculties that have established a positive view of the university.
India has a unique educational scenario with the presence of Central Universities, State Universities, Deemed Universities, and Institutes of National Importance. Private universities and colleges did not have a long history in the context of India. However, in recent years India has seen an upsurge of private education in the form engineering colleges and management schools that guarantee students placements in top notch corporations as technical experts or management staff.
While some universities in India have already established themselves as institutes of repute, the newer players are in the process of building their names. Educational institutes are seeking means through which they can establish themselves as key players in the market.
In order to devise branding strategies, it is essential to understand a university’s brand impact. A well-reputed university is able to recruit and retain quality staff, establish a higher position in national and international ranking charts, maintain better negotiating powers for placements of its students with companies, and most importantly, attract students both nationally and internationally. A successfully branded university is able to build such a level of trust that its reputation remains solid even when there are changes in the market place. So, how can a higher educational institution build its brand?
- The first step towards brand-building would involve the development of excellent teaching and learning experiences, both on campus and online. This includes providing strong academic support to students in accordance with their individual needs, circumstances, expectations, and attitudes. It also involves establishing departments with respected faculty members who impart theoretical and practical knowledge.
- Universities must be aware of the fact that students refer to university rankings when making a choice for their higher education. Today, universities are ranked both internationally and nationally based on a number of criteria. Two of the most well-known rankings include the ‘QS World University Rankings’, and the ‘Times Higher Education World University Rankings’. Within its domestic context, the ‘India Today’ ranking of universities and colleges is also well-known. Rankings also matter for universities seeking global partnerships. For instance, foreign universities looking for partnerships with Indian universities need to be among the top 500 universities in the world.
- Students also look for universities that provide outstanding student life on campus. As the University of Edinburgh mentions on its website, “The student experience encompasses many aspects of academic and intellectual development; social and emotional life; and the growth and refinement of cultural, political, sporting and artistic interests”. Students look for holistic development, not just academic development. Besides improved learning experiences, students look for vibrant social life in terms of recreational and sports facilities. Extra-curricular activities are also highly valued by future employers, who look for candidates with multi-tasking skills and a range of mental and social competences.
- Across the world, universities use open days to promote their universities and courses among prospective students. Here, prospective students have the opportunity to explore the campus and facilities, and meet current staff and students. Tours, talks, and other activities are organised for students to provide them with information related to both their courses of interest and the university in general.
- Social media platforms have also become tools for universities to promote campus culture and events to prospective students and parents. The use of photos and event updates provides an indication of what future life could be like at on campus. Often lecture clippings provide a feel of classroom teaching. Testimonials, videos, and blogs written by current students are published on social media such that prospective students can draw ideas from them, with hashtags used to popularise events and conferences through connections with wider debates.
- Students also note the strength of the alumni, and the contributions of outstanding people to the university’s wealth of knowledge. The reputation of the university depends on how successful graduates have been in the real world, and also on the innovations and effectiveness of graduates within their respective fields. To encourage alumni participation and continued support, universities often organise alumni dinners and awards; renowned alumni have enormous influence in establishing the university’s name worldwide.
- Universities also offer study abroad programmes and exchange programmes to attract students looking for international experience. Students are keen to study abroad as it helps them understand and accept an array of different cultures, exposes them to various international languages, broadens their general knowledge, improves their analytical and problem solving skills, and keeps them abreast of global issues. Universities with global partnerships thus have higher brand value when compared to others.
- Finally, universities with better placement opportunities are viewed as the most obvious choice for both students and parents. Future employment is the most important factor when it comes to joining universities. Universities with better graduate placements will have an enhanced reputation among students, parents, companies, and other academic institutions.
To begin with, universities may select particular criteria for building their own brand. For instance, some universities may choose to focus on their teaching quality. The recruitment and retention of academic staff would therefore be the primary focus, with staff being recruited based on their instructional, presentation, and mentoring skills. Recurrent evaluation of academic staff would also establish a process of continuous development.
In stark contrast to the most well-thought out brand strategies, universities of the highest distinction have, on occasion, faced media outrage, criticism, and severe reputational risks. A case study of the LSE illustrates how reputational risks can damage even renowned universities.
The London School of Economics: Ethics is a Long Term Guarantee for Success
After the resignation of Director Howard Davies, Lord Woolf was commissioned by the London School of Economics Council in March 2011 to review the connections between the LSE and Libya. The report found that there were failings of governance, management, and communication at the LSE concerning Saif Gaddafi’s PhD and the decision to accept a gift from the Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation. This incident was a learning lesson for the LSE, encouraging a revision of its donation and fundraising policies. The unpleasant event at the prestigious LSE was also seen as a lesson on reputational risk management for universities across the world.
The academic merits were not good enough for Saif to obtain admission to a PhD course. The report says “The Philosophy Department’s reasons for accepting Saif were that ‘firstly his degree results were sufficiently good to merit consideration (though not good enough for him to have a clear case on academic merit alone) and secondly we felt a great deal of good might be done for Libya (and indeed more widely) if Saif Al-Qadhafi was given a prolonged exposure to liberal ideas and influence’”.
The recommendations provided by Lord Woolf noted that Saif Gaddafi was asked for a gift six weeks after his doctorate had been confirmed. The report states “Approximately six weeks after Saif’s doctorate was confirmed he was asked to give a donation to the Centre for Global Governance, a research centre at the School. A donation of £1.5 million was promised to the Centre by the Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation (‘Saif’s Foundation’ or the ‘GICDF’), in July 2009, on the same day as the graduation ceremony at which Saif received his PhD.”
Failures in communication and governance were identified as the main reasons for the incident. Woolf writes in his report that “In addition, the history of the developing connection between the LSE and Libya has exposed a disconcerting number of failures in communication and governance within the School. The errors which I detail in the remaining chapters of this report exceed those that should have occurred in an institution of the LSE’s distinction. The pattern is such that I am driven to the central conclusion that there were short comings in the governance structure and management at the LSE.”
The entire incident indeed raised questions of ethical and reputational risk management for other universities too. As Woolf mentions in his report “The scale of global operation carries ethical and reputational risk, and requires an infrastructure to protect the core principles of any university which is operating on a more expansive and international market. These changes in the nature of the world in which universities operate and are resourced mean that some, including the LSE, are now operating on a scale comparable to that of a global company. Philippa Foster Back OBE, Director of the Institute of Business Ethics, has immense experience of reputational and ethical concerns in both the corporate and educational world. She sees commercial operations and universities as today being on ‘very similar lines’ with regard to the management of ethical and reputational risk”.
The event damaged the LSE’s reputation and it faced a media backlash. “Initially, Saif’s presence was a catalyst for links to be developed between the LSE and Libya. At the beginning of this year, the political situation changed dramatically in Libya and the relations between the west and the Gaddafi regime in Libya deteriorated. This resulted in an onslaught of media criticism directed against the LSE. The onslaught undoubtedly seriously damanged the LSE’s repulation. It caused significant distress to staff, students and academics at the LSE”.
At the beginning of the report’s recommendations, the primary place is reserved for an ethics code and ethics committee: “The LSE should have an embedded Code dealing with ethics and reputational risk which applies across the institution. That Code should be reviewed at regular intervals to ensure it is in accord with best current practice. The LSE should set up a Committee, which may have subcommittes so far as this is desirable, to effectively deal with issues relating to the Code”.
The report clearly states that risks cannot be avoided, but creating a culture whereby the institution should be sensitive to risks and ethical values should be a priority: “Risk cannot be avoided. I have recommended that consideration be given on how to achieve better structures of governance. However, it is clear that what is needed is a culture throughout LSE which is sensitive to risks and ethical values. The trials of the kind suffered by the LSE at the beginning of this year, whilst painful, ought to have made all those within the institution alive to this need. The encouragement of such a culture will be fostered by consultation on and adoptation of an institutional Ethics Code and appointment of an Ethics Committee”.
The article has discussed how branding exercises can build the case for new universities to establish themselves as well-reputed institutions, and it has also explained the various means through which universities can engage in the branding process.
Firstly, universities need to provide excellent teaching and learning environments for students. Secondly, universities need to improve their national and international ranking in order to retain students. Thirdly, universities should provide outstanding student life on campus. Fourthly, universities should organise open days, use social media, and engage alumni to establish a renowned brand.
A case study has been used to show that even universities with solid reputational foundations have faced risks in the past; while strategic branding is significant, improved management and governance are actually much more fundamental in mitigating reputational risk.
Institutions should ask themselves a series of questions when seeking to build a global reputation. Although numerous ‘how to?’ questions are undoubtedly key with respect to global partnerships, improved rankings, competitiveness, and the various brand-building tasks outlines above, governance and corporate ethics must always retain primacy, and mitigation and contingency strategies should also be put in place to guard against negative media attention and reputational damage.