Here is where the youngest possible adults collide with the most highly specialised experts. Each September, a new cohort of undergraduate and graduate students are tossed together into academic pressure cookers. Every July, a similar number graduate and leave. And, for a few brief years in between, they form communities as intense as they are temporary.
Add in a heady mix of big money and often storied history, and universities ought to be fertile ground for strange and wonderful new forms of place brand — not to mention that their transient populations make narrative continuity vital. But a cursory survey will tell you that that’s not always the case.
Heavyweight or heavy weight?
We spoke to someone who has just spent months staring at university websites: an applicant who has recently finished up a round of postgrad applications to US courses. He preferred to remain anonymous — university offers can be rescinded for any reason — but we’ll call him Max. Max has been around the university applications block: this will be his third course. By this point, he has industry experience and a more-than robust perspective of the branding on offer.
For the most part, this branding is remarkably similar. Max explained, “I don’t know if it’s because of institutional inertia or the weight of their reputations, but a lot of universities end up being wedded to a very traditional standard. They like to emphasise their historical credentials and honestly a lot of them end up looking the same.” The higher up the rankings it came, the more likely a university was to have curt communication and a logo that looked like 1994. “The top tier schools seem so convinced by their own superiority that they don’t end up reaching out.”
Complacency may be part of it, but universities need to attract students, academics and investors alike, and that means delicately straddling past and future. One foot must be kept firmly rooted on prestige and reputation — the more hundreds of years you can lay claim to the better — while the other foot inches forward in search of the next explosive paper, the next Nobel laureate, and an experience to attract the next generation. This is a tricky balancing act: the Université de Moncton caused a stir in 2015 by going too hard for the latter, when an admissions video featured a passionate library make-out session.