Thursday, May 5, 2016

More than three and a tree - What is a university?

The photo above represents the public image of most universities; 18-22 year old students on campus. Practically every university website features photos like this and most see campus as their core business. The trouble is that when every institution uses very similar images matched with very similar slogans and mission statements it becomes very difficult to tell the difference. Is this image really a fair representation of what a university is today and what it could become? An article in Inside Higher Ed called Your Future Starts Here. Or Here. Or Here, pokes gentle fun at stereotyped marketing, referring to a book called Three and a tree published a few years ago.

A college suffers from Three and a Tree (or TAAT) when its brochures feature pictures of “three students of varying ethnicities and gender, dressed head to toe in college-branded merchandise.”

The book is a guide to university marketing and offers an escape from the stereotyped and rather shallow approaches still favoured by many today. Since a traditional campus degree is one of the most expensive investments you make in your life you will be looking for a university that offers something special. The vast majority of institutions have interchangeable visions and strategies and so there are enormous gains to be made from more targeted marketing. One particularly interesting proposal is creating a separate web site for recruitment that focuses on the questions that prospective students have. University web sites try to include every aspect of their activities on their website with the result that prospective students drown in information. So the conclusion is to create a dual site university with one student recruitment site plus the main information site for everyone else.

However the book doesn't really tackle the greatest potential market for higher education; professional development and lifelong learning for those well over 22. I haven't seen many websites that integrate images of older students (professional development, distance learners, lifelong learners etc) into their mainstream marketing. The three and a tree imagery still dominates. At many universities today an increasing number of students are very seldom, if ever, on campus though you would never guess that by browsing through the website, the videos or the brochures. This extremely important target group is at best relegated to a sub-heading somewhere in the menus.

So what actually constitutes a university today? It's so much more than just the impressive administrative building, the lawns or the lecture halls. This is discussed in a blog post by Mark Smithers entitled Because universities are more than just girls under trees. He also wants the focus to move from student recruitment to a much more complex concept.

Now don’t get me wrong, teaching students is a core function of a university but for me personally universities are about much more than that. At their heart they are communities of scholars or learners at different stages in their learning. These communities can be virtual, physical, blended. They can be in any form; what is important is not the space but the ideas.

University is not a place it's a community of communities linking people across generations and professions. There may or may not be an impressive campus but that is just the tip of the iceberg. What unites all connected with the institution is not so much the physical location but the networks and collaboration that are the real lifeblood. Once you realise that, the clichéd stock photos become redundant and a new image emerges that is much more inclusive and representant of reality. The real impact of a university reaches all through society and the campus becomes simply one aspect (still important) of a complex eco-system. It's time that complexity was communicated more clearly.

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