Friday, July 05, 2013

How To Build A Higher Education Brand

Being in the middle of a Higher Ed revolution, this is one question I face all too often: How does one build a new Higher Education brand? The obvious answers, research, league table standing, often do not work for those who are asking the question. The big budget, state sponsored Higher Education still around, but this is not where the action is. It is more on the fringes of Higher Education, driven by those 'Edupunks and Edupreneurs', as Anya Kamenetz calls them. Higher Education, as we know it, has become costly, inaccessible and a bastion of social privilege, rather than an engine of social mobility. And, therefore, in this day of middle class revolts, falling job rates and twilight of the age of conformity, a new Higher Education is happening at the fringes: It is here that the brand creation question gets asked most often.

And, this is therefore an important question to answer. Because there is so little these new Higher Education institutions can learn from the established Higher Education brands of today: Surely, there is no point (even if one has the means, hypothetically) to want to be Harvard if you are trying to set up a Higher Education institution in Kathmandu, Bangkok or Mangalore. This is because, to be successful in those settings, the Higher Education institution must be designed to be catalytic, of lifting its students from parochial constraints to global possibilities, rather than preservative, of maintaining the established system of privileges, practises and credentials. To be successful, this Higher Education institution at the fringe must ensure that its students have a better life than their parents, a benchmark, if applied, most of our top class universities will come short of.

However, since most people believe that to create a Higher Education brand one will take 400 years and the head-start and the resources of Harvard (or the blessings of a welfare state), most people don't even try. This leads to two things: The intelligent and well-intentioned abandon Higher Education and go do software instead; and, the charlatans of the world unite in Higher Ed, promising the non-existent and delivering nothing to students in most cases. While top end Higher Ed keep on preserving privileges, the fringe Higher Ed perpetuates deprivation, giving out essentially the same message, that education means really nothing, and you are who you are born.

I know I exaggerate, but that is to make my point.  There are great things happening at great universities and they are changing our world. We sure need that, and this post is not my rebellion against the great universities. But we can hardly get the benefits of all the progress we are enabling unless we can create a model of Higher Education in the margins, the Higher Education that creates and enables most of the new knowledge workers in our societies. Without education for the new middle classes, there is little chance that we will move forward. Hence, I concern myself solely  in this space, working to develop my fledgling company but also to engage, research and advice the new Higher Education institutions. What follows here is my answer to the question, how to create a Higher Education brand, new ones and serving the new middle classes, with limited resources and satisfying the requirements of its business investors.

First, I think there is a general misconception about what a Higher Ed institution really does, and the confusion comes from how we accredit the institutions. Because in most cases, we use a static model of accreditation, based on resources available against certain benchmarks, Higher Education is almost automatically perceived to be a system of delivery. It is seen as a set of classrooms, libraries and tutors, and intangibles such as the curriculum and services, which take the student out of school and get them 'trained' on certain skills, which the employers want. So, it is, in short, represent a labour factory. In this, one forgets the Higher Education institution, in its traditional, contemporary as well as futuristic settings (as experienced in MOOCs and elsewhere), is a community.

When the new universities are built, lot of focus goes into buildings and infrastructure, but very little on what kind of community the institution will foster. This is one sure way to get the branding wrong, because, as it turns out, an institution is really as good as its community. For older institutions, the community manifests in alumni and track record: For the newer institution, it is about values, engagement and conversations one is having.
 
Second, Higher Education is not about being skilled and stamped and delivered to the employers, but being admitted into a community of educated people. This is where Higher Education brands are really built: Not whether the education one received got him/her a sales assistant's job in the local shopping mall, but whether s/he can be admitted to the community of the educated. This is also how one's life gets better, becomes better, almost certainly, than their parents: They have a more sentient approach to their careers and lives, and become less amenable to outside forces and more conscious of one's own settings, and more able to change it. This point is mostly completely missed by Higher Ed institutions at the fring, and they assume that such luxuries such as being oneself should be left to the top institutions. 

The point here is then that Higher Ed brands are not built on placement records, but by the institution's graduates being recognised as educated, which imply that they are able to live freely, in control of their lives. An institution trying to become a brand should therefore take this, enabled graduates, as their key objective. As one knows, if the graduates achieve this higher aim, employability will follow.

Third, like any brand, Higher Education brands need to have a differentiator, but the strategic realities are hardly comparable with any other consumer brand. For example, as a colleague always reminds me, there are no 'dominant' brands in Higher Ed, because the markets are so huge. Besides, the brand perception in Higher Ed is defined by selectivity, rather than market share. For non-selective, new institutions, the easiest differentiator is focus (not to confuse with Michael Porter's generic strategies, I use 'differentiation' in its broad, English language sense), wherein they focus on one area and should try to do it very very well. I have come across so many institutions which tend to launch with many 'schools', projecting an image larger than themselves and hoping that the students will find them authentic if they have a large portfolio. In my experience, the opposite tends to happen: The students take them as they are, confused! However, there are a number successful examples where an institution has focused on a narrow subject area and had done that very well, and emerged as a strong brand in the area and eventually in the Higher Ed sector in general. 

Finally, the student experience, pedagogy and learning content, something that in the tech-fuelled new paradigm Higher Ed is taken for granted, remain defining components of a Higher Ed brand. Doing it well is important in Higher Education, because one can hardly get a second chance and so many institutions actually do it sloppily. And, in this, the execution aspect of Higher Education, the contrast with brands in other sector comes in sharp relief: A higher education brand is based on so many minute details, mostly outside the traditional manager's scope of work, that it becomes impossible to create and drive a brand building exercise without, metaphorically speaking, knowing every student by name and by face in an institution.

In summary, brand building in Higher Education is like building a high quality community, based on values and collaboration. Reputation, while not built overnight, can build up quickly once an institution got the community bit right. Then it is about purpose and values, delivering a focused offering and getting the details right, which are, in a way, key drivers of a community built around an institution.  

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