Feature: A brand-led reinvention of higher education

Nationally and globally, educational institutions are revisiting their methods to remain relevant to students, industry and society. In this essay, Sérgio Brodsky writes that the proposed fee deregulation means now is the time for Australia’s higher education institutions to adopt a brand-led approach to provide security of future earnings and enrolments. 


The origins of educational systems can be, to a large extent, attributed to the military system. Every year classes of around 30 students are ‘processed’ like military platoons. When students succeed they acquire a standardised credential, the degree, attesting their intellectual qualities, similar to military medals, but when students fail they are held back and ‘reprocessed’ on that same year to then move on and out to the labour market wars.

Efficiency and standardisation, as pillars of the modern educational system, helped form ‘armies of students’ and ‘factories of ideas’ that propelled the wealth of nations. However, when diversity lacks the system cracks and, both nationally and globally, educational institutions are revisiting their methods to remain relevant to students, industry and society.

In Australia, with few exceptions, the academic experience has essentially been a homogenous one, independent of the chosen institution.

This is especially true when you try to fit the ‘Top 100 schools’ into the ‘Top 20′ and from there to the ‘Top 10′, to a never-ending carousel of alternating ‘Top 5′ and a ‘Top’ to rule them all.

This race for the best credentials doesn’t necessarily improve quality of education, but rather highly commoditises the sector. And when the experience is (almost) identical, with too many suppliers producing too many interchangeable services and marketing them to an audience eager to listen, brand becomes crucial.

Considering higher education (HE) is Australia’s third largest export, safeguarding the sector against potential new entrants becomes a matter of national interest.

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), about 200 million young people worldwide will have degrees by 2020. Forty percent of these 25- to 34-year-olds will be from China and India, which represent Australia’s growth markets.

By 2025, the number of those travelling abroad for a degree could double from today’s estimate of 4.3 million students. Our Federal Departments of Education, Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Finance, should want to keep Australia as a top-of-mind destination and Australian education institutions as key choice-drivers.

For the Australian HE sector, this is a conversation worth having before the bell of the 2015 term rings. This is because new budget measures, due to take effect next year, plan to withdraw $1.1 billion of Commonwealth contributions and deregulate fees and the number of degrees awarded per year.

From the Federal Government’s point-of-view, these budget measures will, for the first time, enable competition based on quality and innovation, as opposed to having a homogenous market where players need to fit into a mould to be eligible for subsidies.

To be competitive and financially sustainable, HE institutions must focus on the reinvention of educational credentials, the smart use of technology to avoid alienating the real purpose of university (that is, to broaden students’ horizons and minds) and unique experiences as brand-building platforms.

That is because Gen Y is the first generation of people that work, play, think and learn differently than their parents. They are the first generation that is not afraid of technology, and therefore the educational system.

This indicates we may be at the brink of a paradigm shift of the production, transmission and consumption of knowledge where what is needed and what is desired will gradually blur the sector as we know it.


Isn’t academic excellence a good enough credential?

In a society where glorified college dropouts are symbols of success and quality learning can be achieved via just-in-time YouTube tutorials, world-class documentaries, or free Ivy-League online courses, the attainment of good education has exited the strongholds of national academia. Besides that, retailing a credential to consumers who were taught to shop around is going to turn what was once a no-brainer into a hard sell.

The quote from Matt Damon in the Harvard bar scene in Good Will Hunting – “You blew 150k on an education you could have gotten in $1.50 in late fees from the library” – is very telling about credential cost-effectiveness. Moreover, when selecting a candidate, employers would, in most cases, prefer relevant skills, experience and personality traits over an academic excellence stamp.

Still, the idea of credentialism has not yet lost its appeal. This is because HE is the only business where the consumer affects the value of the product. It means that the person who sits next to you is what really adds value, improving the quality of education and overall experience.

From 2015 this could mean that credentials will not have to be regulated through ‘hard to score’ standardised test requirements (e.g. the states’ high school certificates), just somehow differently, yet effectively presented. It could happen in less formal or different ways, replacing the idea of an institutionalised stamp of quality and credibility with perhaps a ‘Worth studying and applying for’ one. Even though intelligence, skills and education do not depend on credentials, the commercialisation of those do.

And this is the first big opportunity for innovating in the sector. For the top-tier universities there is the chance to form a league of their own by creating the Australian version that emulates America’s Ivy League, France’s Grandes écoles or Britain’s Russell Group. Australia’s Group of Eight, Go8, is as close as it gets but as it stands it is more of a demarcation within the system in relation to other institutions than a magnet to prospective students, employers, alumni and benefactors.

For the bigger chunk of second-tier institutions, the opportunity is a lot more exciting. Instead of the ‘Top’ or ‘Best’ schools league tables, how about disrupting with categories like ‘Schools with Most Innovative Final Projects’, ‘Most Engaging Degrees’ or ‘Best Connected Colleges’?

Taking the latter for example, connectivity has become such a widely used value – especially since the creation of the World Wide Web – that it makes business sense to exploit its benefits and magnetic power.

Connectivity implies that ideas can go anywhere and, in a way, assumes that to connect is to learn. Therefore, the ‘Best Connected Colleges’ would consider learning as a more holistic and, of course, connected process. Their league tables could be built on criteria that could include:

  • number of professional connections facilitated by the College during the degree,
  • quality of broadband and devices interconnected to the academic experience,
  • connections of a specific program to different yet relevant disciplines,
  • connection to jobs, new ventures, or new academic opportunities,
  • connections to peers nationally and internationally,
  • connections that made a positive impact in the world,
  • strengthening of a student’s LinkedIn network, and
  • provision of links to relevant newsfeeds.


To have a degree from a respected university being featured on one’s LinkedIn profile is not a bad thing. But a university that proactively focuses on connecting students with anything that could add value to their experiences is a more pragmatic and, potentially, more compelling credential to display.

Ultimately, students want to be industry-ready and, beyond a degree, hold a competitive edge that will make their CVs stand apart from the piles that recruiters have to go through. The choice of credential will depend on the type of students and experiences that will interweave to form a brand.

From a free market perspective, the type of accreditation becomes an argument to attract potential investors and legitimise student loans.

An underperforming school with the right type of accreditations is a very valuable property, one that can be turned around by savvy entrepreneurs, venture capitalists or private equity firms and eventually hold its own IPO (initial public offering) and replicate the model.


New learning modes

Just as renaissance education went through some significant transformations, it’s time to make of our medieval methods a thing of the past. The three learning modes listed below have conditions to become true disruptors:

1-2-1 instruction: works because peers who are new to a subject explain concepts in easy-to-understand terms. It’s a simple shift from ‘passive teaching’ to ‘active learning’. One of the best ways to learn something is to teach it to someone else and, according to Harvard professor Eric Mazur, this method has been proven to triple students’ gain in knowledge.

Flipped classrooms: happen when students watch a recorded lecture before meeting with their lecturer, using the time in class to work on exercises and discuss what they’ve learned. The lecturer acts as a facilitator, making ‘lectures’ fully interactive – putting more emphasis on applying knowledge to a problem rather than memorising facts – and lecturers create a personalised experience for the students, acting more as a ‘tutor’ than a ‘teacher’.

Distance learning clubs: started with students gathering in cafés and libraries to access and talk about their online lectures together. This is a setting that provides distance learners with the spontaneous debate that has lacked in digital education programs until now. Maybe the opportunity here is for universities to extend their reach via alternative environments, creating ‘non-classroom’ learning hubs for those with a family, a disability or who want to juggle work and study.


From learning experiences to experiential learning

As the digital revolution advances, higher education providers need to work out how digital tools, platforms and innovations can enhance traditional teaching.

  • À la carte lectures: means students can fit lectures of choice into their preferred working patterns, rewind if they get distracted, pause if they need to take notes or look something up, fast-forward if they are already familiar with a concept, and rewatch for revision purposes, without having to be part of a large group conditioned to specific hours. Keith Devlin, a professor at Stanford, argues that in taking control of their own learning, students’ engagement increases and closer connections with lecturers are forged, making it, “self- evidently [a] better method of teaching”.
  • idutainement: is about injecting the effectiveness of gamification into higher education. GameDesk, one of Fast Company‘s ‘Top 10 Most Innovative Companies in Education’, has produced some of the most exciting and effective edu-games, resulting in a $3.8 million donation from AT&T – the largest grant of any kind in the telco’s education initiative. Media agencies could play a massive role and use their access to data and insights expertise to enhance the efficacy of, and become the trusted e-advisors of, higher education institutions.
  • E-learning carts: enables universities – like museums – to become masters of curation, drawing royalties and license fees from the content created by faculty as off-the-shelf products (courses) or tailored bundles (a customised program). The University of Arizona’s Eller College of Management now offers three non-degree online ‘specialisations’, an initiative aimed at those seeking job-ready skills and has been branded ‘the iTunes of HE’ by Joe Valacich, Eller’s director of online initiatives. Here at OMD, we have already started advising clients in the HE sector on how to best curate and deliver their content and reach independence from third-party e-learning platforms.
  • Wearable degrees: could enable the less tech-savvy students to leapfrog their own relationships with digital technologies, while ‘feeling special’ and motivated to learn. When laptops were the hottest piece of professional tech around, Ibmec, a leading Brazilian private university ‘gave’ one per enrolment into its newly launched MBA program (costs were absorbed by tuition fees and sponsorships). Nowadays, wearables could find an actual commercial and educational purpose by introducing hardware and software into higher education. Could this be Google’s hook to dynamising a whole new sector?

Perhaps, we could be staring at the future of HE learning, a world where digital and traditional methods combine to create a more fluid experience. The difference between being and thinking will gradually disappear. Through smart use of digital media, we are going to become consumers and purchasers of the improvement of our faculties.


Quenching the thirst

To this point, the ‘need’ for traditional higher education to change, adapt and evolve to remain relevant has been the focus of this article, but it is important to consider the other side of this token: our drive to learn, or simply put, our curiosity.

Despite social inequality, socioeconomic and political instability humanity never had it so good. As attested by cognitive scientist Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, when comparing past ages to ours, there was never so much peace and abundance… of pretty much everything. Rather than saving for that rainy day, people are enjoying life more. Learning has climbed up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs from a safety state to a self-actualisation one. People want to learn because it is empowering and feels good. And, in competitive terms, this hugely incentivises new entrants.

For example, the Swiss-British philosopher Alain de Botton was quite the businessman when founding The School of Life, a place ‘free from dogma’, where participants are “directed towards a variety of ideas – from philosophy to literature, psychology to the visual arts – that tickle, exercise and expand your mind” and where participants can meet other curious, sociable and open-minded people in an atmosphere of exploration and enjoyment.

Moreover, considering the growth of Australia’s aging population, a megatrend branded by the CSIRO as ‘Forever Young’, our silver demographics need to be more seriously considered and meaningfully served. As an example, what if education providers could combine relevant content with the techniques of brain training games like the successful app Lumosity? This could mean that, beyond improving memory and other mental faculties, such platforms could also generate opportunities ranging from meaningful conversations to communities of interest, invigorating an often forgotten market when it comes to cutting-edge digital technologies.

Although our elders may have more time and money, our youth is just as attracted to learning and experiencing more. From the contemporary phobia FOMO (fear of missing out) that keeps us voraciously consuming online content and YOLO (you only live once) making us more adventurous about life, educational institutions could take advantage of our zeitgeist and positively channel it by igniting their own #QYKT (quench your knowledge thirst) movement.


Brand new choices for genuine education

Attracting and keeping students connected to their alma mater has become a lifelong pursuit, rather than a three- to five-year cycle. Despite some extreme branding, North American universities have been thriving in a deregulated environment, where (almost) everything is possible, although not always recommended.

The University of Florida, for example, boasts branded food courts, ballrooms, a cinema, bowling alley, a three- storey hotel, student legal services and bike repair (both free), career counselling and all manner of stuff that used to belong in the mall, including an art gallery, video games, an optical store, a travel agency, a frame store, an outdoor outfitter, a store devoted to selling ‘spiritware’ (everything one can imagine with the school logo and mascot) and a huge aquarium filled with fish of orange and blue – the school colours.

But there’s more. Brown University offers adult and elderly care, so alumni can relive their best years during their last ones. And, if that’s not enough, Cedar Grove Cemetery provides a dignified Christian burial to members of the Notre Dame University community under the school grounds, so alumni souls can ‘inspire’ and ‘welcome’ all first-years.

In order to avoid such a brand-banalisation, academic institutions must focus on single-minded ideas as their driving forces to create an appeal for what they are (their business definition) and what they represent (their mission, vision and values) rather than just what they produce (educational credentials) to avoid nonsensically adding not- so-relevant services (e.g. spas or another vending machine). This represents a change in the basic assumptions of what the HE model represents in Australia, from being an end to becoming the means for new possibilities.

This shift suggests that the next chapter of the Australian HE is not just about telling stories in the classroom (the classes) but about the classroom itself (the brand). For students it will be more engaging to learn about the context that enabled their educational experience. For potential donors, an entity that is aligned to their desired legacies will make more philanthropic sense and avoid the discomfort of ‘endowing to save their wealthy souls’.

Previously, working for the brand consultancy Interbrand, I had the opportunity to engage in a project involving an Australian higher-education organisation.

It was there that I crystalised my opinion about the true intangible value of brands, defined as a heartbeat, or the organising principle that organisations stand for – and how it should be used to bring about meaningful change.

In the case of academic institutions, this ranges from what the campus environment should be like, to how staff are recruited and trained, students are selected, communications are conducted and products and services are commercialised.

For example, if the brand is built around the idea of sustainability, the overall curriculum will be aligned to sustainable development practices with highly specialised flagship programs, staff will receive carbon neutrality training, clean energy will power the entire campus, food will be locally sourced and research will have a ‘green’ focus.

This type of approach attracts faculty and students that are genuinely interested about the cause (or brand), as well as obtaining a credential. It will also connect with environmentally conscious foundations, private banks’ green funds and adequate corporate partners, as well as communities affected by climate change.

Just like building a course’s curriculum, every action reflecting the school’s brand must be embedded with a clear, single-minded purpose. Importantly, a brand-led strategy avoids fads like ‘last year the focus was diversity, now we’ll do that sustainability stuff ‘, a clear symptom of a commodity-type institution trying too hard to promote ‘an edge’.

Above all, this more dynamic business model enables greater independence from tuition fees. Brand-led institutions can accomplish the feat of announcing that the uncapping of fees will not affect students’ budgets, wreck the Commonwealth-supported loan schemes or disturb the development of Australia’s human capital.

In order to pass next year’s big test, Australian higher education institutions need to quickly see brand as a living business asset that can provide security of future earnings and enrolments.


Join the discussion about this topic: add to it, argue it or share the article. Tweet the author @brandKzar, and @Marketingmag. Editorial responses to this article are welcome from other industry viewpoints – email peter<at>marketingmag.com.au with proposals.

This article is concurrently published in the October-November 2014 issue of Marketing. 

Sérgio Brodsky
BY Sérgio Brodsky ON 16 October 2014
Sérgio Brodsky is an internationally experienced brand marketing professional having worked for some of the world's greatest strategic communications agencies. Sérgio is a proven thought-leader, speaking at industry events, lecturing and regularly being published worldwide. He is passionate about cities and culture and the role of brands and technology in society. Sérgio is multilingual and holds a BA in IP law and an MBA in global brand strategy and innovation. Follow him on Twitter: @brandKzar.