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How come 130 British universities are in the Top 10 for something or other?

by | Jan 4, 2018 | News

Halpin Consulting Fellow – and academic brand consultant – David Miller – explores the Higher Education sector’s obsession with rankings and argues that this is no alternative to real brand differentiation.

With some glorious and elevated exceptions, British universities are unhealthily obsessed with rankings.

Every university in the UK seems to be playing the rankings game. You see risible claims such as ‘Top Ten Modern University for Student Experience’, ‘Top 10 University under 50 years old, and ‘Top Five Green University’ as voted by student vegans (I made the last bit up).’ The caveats flow thick and fast – though as a sometimes cynical education consultant, I’m still waiting for London Met to advertise itself as the Top Ten University on Holloway Road.

This rush to the centre is then compounded by generic language and even more generic mission statements. Education marketers invariably describe teaching as ‘research-led’, even in universities which are brilliantly vocational. The vast majority of research is so ‘cutting-edge’, you’d better wear gloves. ‘Advancing knowledge and transforming lives through education and research’ is any university’s raison d’etre, but it doesn’t stop the majority banging on about it as though it was their very own USP.

Education marketers need to start teaching their senior management about brand differentiation. Why it’s important to forge a distinct identity is this now very competitive market. Why it’s important to focus largely on the values and spirit of your university, not on facts. Because most facts change from year to year, but values are relatively immutable.

Exeter, for example, is not a place that believes in ‘or’. It’s an ‘and’ place. It wants to be successful on every front simultaneously. Alpha management with a culture driven by ambition. So we summed up its differentiator as ‘We make the exceptional happen’. A distinctive brand truth in an over-crowded market.

Portsmouth, I know, really is a university that puts its students first. Where assessment and feedback are taken very seriously, and where student support is delivered at the highest level. Go onto their website and you’ll see this reflected in how they present their institution.

Lancaster, recently nominated as the Sunday Times ‘University of the Year’, performs better on every count, year in, year out, than the vast majority of Russell Group universities. So if I was advising them, I’d suggest using this as a way of saying crème de la crème – elite without saying elite – with their rankings as support. Lancaster, the non-establishment challenger brand, just as Virgin was to BA thirty years ago.

SOAS, University of London, is famous for its political activism and global concern. Its students, staff and alumni really do want to make the world a better place, and many go into the public sector, social enterprises and NGOs to make it their life’s work. If I were them, I’d use this unifying SOASIAN ethic to distinguish their institution and attract more students who identify with their values.

There’s a real point of difference in every university – but few have had the discipline to go find it. Perhaps it’s because universities are never afraid to use 500 words when five will do. Perhaps it’s the fault of the Russell Group, who have successfully duped non-members into competing on their ground. Perhaps it’s because it’s more difficult developing a single original thought in institutions which are inherently complex and consensual.

Or perhaps it’s the fault of education consultants and education marketers like me who have not made the case to University Vice-Chancellors and Registrars strongly enough. And the case is simple.

  • The UK higher education market is over-crowded.
  • The market will continue to segment.
  • Mediocre me-too universities will fail and be merged.
  • Success in this market requires you to have to have a distinctive positioning.
  • One which is perfect for your target market segment.
  • Ergo, brand differentiation is the foundation of commercial success, in the higher education sector.

Just as it is in every private sector throughout the world.