When Carmyl finished high school at the only government high in Geelong in the 1950’s, she was the only person in her year to head to university.

She became a nuclear physicist, author and community dynamo (and my mum) as life progressed, but her rarity as a university student, let alone as a woman studying science in the 1950s raises some interesting questions.

Given the relatively small number of Australians who enjoyed access to university before the reforms of the 1990s, and the huge growth in educational opportunity in recent decades, are we in a golden age of higher education right now?

If so, who is going to pay to keep it going?

As government funding per student has waned, COVID-19 has stalled international student participation and slender branches of research funding appear to be hanging in the wind, universities have tightened their belts. However, the future revenue streams which keep academics in paid work and lights on in research labs is less certain than it has been for some time.

Which brings us, like it or not, to university brands.

What is the point of a university brand? A brief lapse into Twitter brings to light a persistent cohort of miffed university staff railing at the corporatisation and commodification of universities, but they are fighting the wrong fight. The quixotic mission to banish business terminology from campus boundaries is a distraction from the real question – what is the point of a university?

This question is far less easy than it seems – and asked far too infrequently.

The need to better define the role and value of an institution is often ignored in the white heat of indignation that such a question could be asked in the first place.

But if you work in a university, you need to know.

When you step away from the long distance vision – the timeless response of “teaching and research for the benefit of communities” – defining the role of your university in the next month or the next year gets a lot harder.

How many in our community do we serve? And what proportion of the communities we claim to serve feel excluded? More than a decade of failure to convince the electorate that universities matter suggest that we are not reaching enough of them. Of course there is the argument that universities have failed to communicate their value to legions of folks who should in fact feel grateful. But the consistent legislative persecution of the sector suggests the hearts of Australian voters are far from won.

In the meantime, persistent zephyrs of change have become gusts in recent years.

New forms of educational credit, new course offerings, new modes of delivery and new bundles of educational experiences are all being developed within the sector – but are mostly developing faster outside of it.

When we wrote a brochure at ANU in 2002 using rankings as one demonstration of the university’s success, it was highly unusual. Now, the race to dominate multiple rankings systems, despite their narrow evaluation base, has become a proxy for measuring success, and has altered the strategic direction of many universities.

What do those ranking systems, the new approaches to learning and teaching and the publication of research mean to the people who don’t, won’t or can’t access universities?

The answer is way too little.

Universities have a noble goal and frequently operate with laudable intent and outstanding results – but they directly serve relatively narrow strands of community – and are unfairly perceived, but nonetheless, perceived, to only impact those groups, despite taking in thousands of additional students in recent decades.

That’s why university brand matters.

University brands are often crafted as oppositional identities, attempting to gain greater enrolments than other institutions in their patch, but that’s just the superficial purpose. Universities are at their best when their brands remind all of society of their higher purpose. But all too often, universities are forced to support and serve brands – poorly-crafted, unimaginative campaigns, thought bubbles, speeches and posturing that sate institutional egos but leave Australian hearts stone cold.

A brand is far more than a visual identity and slogan – they should just be a postscript on the real thing. A brand is the sum of the spirit of an institution; the commitment; the impact on lives; the selfless contribution to knowledge and the determination to reward ignorance with insight, rather than shame. The brand needs to be felt in welcome lectures, in administrators accepting fees, in researchers explaining their work to visitors.

That brand has got to change rapidly in 2022 – as students return to campuses; as communities find become preoccupied by climate change instead of a disease; and as the changes in technology, curriculum and pedagogy that have been accelerated by a two-year COVID hiatus suddenly come into play.

We don’t have to call it a brand, just as we don’t have to call students customers, or even admit or ourselves that universities need to generate revenue to keep the lights on – but we do have to start to have conversations about how universities better define and explain their role and value to a wider populace in the days to come.

Thousands of women like Carmyl are now getting the chance to study at university on a scale that was unimagined in the first decades after World War Two. But whether they continue to choose to do so depends on a better understanding of brand.

Tim Winkler is director of Twig Marketing


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