Monday, 9 December 2013

University Brands Behaving Badly

If one wanted evidence of a particular kind of naivety in University management today, one wouldn't have to look much further than the University of London's knee-jerk policy-making regarding student protests (see What's going on here? What's the calculation on the part of management that they think this kind of action will be beneficial to them?

Universities have become extraordinarily 'image conscious' recently. This partly is a reflection on those who lead them: the 'boss' must look good, and since the bosses of educational institutions are largely unaccountable their vanity translates directly into institutional policy. The great fear is that in a highly competitive international market, a brand tarnished by protest will cause next year's students not to come, sponsors to turn their back, and research grants to be awarded elsewhere. So, basically, the mantra is that the brand must be protected at all costs.

Brands regularly get into trouble. Apple's problems in their manufacturing plants in China, or clothing brands use of overseas sweatshop workers all pose serious problems for those businesses. Boycotts are bad news. However, whilst the practices of these organisations remain pretty dreadful, businesses have to respond to ethical concerns. Increasingly ethics has become a major issue for business; ethical failure can kill a business - particularly where ethical failure can be seen to lead to catastrophic operational failures (BP is the classic example here, but failures in the banks are also attributable to ethical failures).

How to respond to a threat to the brand is an art - and it is an art that Universities seem rather poor at. The problem with London's banning of student protest is that it makes their situation worse. Any brand is really a 'risk creation' exercise: it demarcates something desirable that some people can associate themselves with providing they pay, are clever enough, or high-status enough to do so. Brands are typically exclusive, maintaining their exclusion on price; Universities maintain their exclusion on accessibility.

There are many branded products we buy where the initial risk of owning the brand introduces new risks: the iPhone presents us with the risks of owning the latest (branded) apps; the new games console introduces new risks of owning the latest games, etc. Universities introduce a plethora of new risks: the risk of failure, the risk of exclusion; financial risk; the risk of irrelevance or uselessness. Once a student agrees to the initial risk of joining the institution, they cannot escape the other risks. Unfortunately, this could give the University a license to do whatever it likes with the students: they could take the majority of their fees to fund vanity projects, or trips for senior managers overseas, and students wouldn't be able to do anything about it. More than that, Universities can now threaten to exclude or otherwise discipline (even legally sanction) students who voice concern at their own exploitation. What does this do to the brand?

Subtle contradictions can work for brands (that's how Apple survives!). But a contradiction which becomes patently obvious to everyone, where everyone can laugh at it, is a different matter. The University of London will no doubt extol the virtues of freedom of speech whilst clearly suppressing it in their own back yard. The danger is that this obvious contradiction 'toxifies' the brand - the message goes out loud and clear: "they are not to be trusted". A degree at the University of London becomes tantamount to acquiescence in student oppression.

The deep problem here is not just with the University of London. It is with the divide that has now emerged between Universities as businesses creating the risks of 'not having a degree' and the actual learning needs of a free and democratic society. Universities as businesses will seek their viable operation through this kind of behaviour, undermining their own legitimacy.

Ironically, I don't think "student fees" are the problem - it is, after all, just another form of tax. But what is urgent is the need to rethink the social contract between the needs of society and the learning needs of individuals. Few people in University management are thinking about the needs of society: their focus is on maintaining their own fiefdoms. We might hope that the backlash from the actions of the University of London may take us closer to changing this.

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