September 18, 2012, by Adrian Mateo

A university’s ‘international’ brand must be more than just spin to attract the best academics

Building a brandUniversities are constantly bombarding us with their ‘global’, ‘international’ and ‘worldwide’ credentials. You can barely visit a website or pick up a prospectus without reading about their global reach, world changing activity or international impact.

These assertions have become every much a part of their brand as academic excellence, outstanding research reputation and an exceptional student experience. In marketing vernacular, they are ‘unique selling points’, selling points that are strategically engineered to favourably position the institution with its various stakeholders.

Given an increasingly mobile and competitive student market and an internationally predisposed research assessment regime, this preoccupation with projecting compelling external messages is understandable, but surely a University’s brand should transcend a simple sales pitch? It must also encapsulate a set of shared organisational values that unite and motivate its staff. After all, higher education is primarily concerned with the transfer of knowledge and the production of human capital. Its academic workforce is therefore one of its most valuable assets and how individuals perceive the value of their employment relationship a key determinant of organisational success.

However, as research I recently carried out at The University of Nottingham uncovered, there is often significant divergence between the values projected by the institution and those held by its academic staff. My main interest was in exploring the legitimacy and impact of its much quoted ‘truly global university’ brand on academic staff recruitment, identity and working practices through a series of exploratory interviews conducted across its campuses in the UK, Malaysia and Ningbo China. Is this mantra indeed a philosophical compass guiding hearts and minds throughout the organisation, or simply marketing rhetoric?

The influence of Nottingham’s ‘global’ brand on recruitment was one of the major areas examined. At the Malaysia campus, awareness of the University’s international reputation was universally cited as a primary factor in the application decision. By contrast, its status as a British university far outweighed any influence its international reputation might have as an employment enticement at the Ningbo China campus. Similarly, at the UK campus its international standing appears to be of marginal importance compared to factors such as research profile, ranking, career development opportunities, physical environment and personal benefits. The fact that academics in two thirds of its campuses did not consider the institution’s international reputation as having any significant influence in their application decision should ring managerial alarm bells. However, perhaps more worryingly was that more than 80% of those interviewed confessed to not actually reading the University’s internationalisation strategy either before or after they were appointed, which may suggest that its influence on shaping organisational culture and identity is limited.

The second area explored was how academic staff view themselves and their position within a multinational university. A sense of belonging to a genuinely international organisation and personal, professional and career development benefits this generates was unanimously recognised across all three campuses. However, academics at the Malaysia and Ningbo China campuses also voiced concerns of UK dominance and an inequitable relationship in terms of employment conditions and strategic input. Interestingly, the question of whether individuals regarded themselves as international academics polarised responses and did little to support the notion that professional identities evolve in parallel with institutional behaviour.

The final area considered was the extent to which internationalisation informs and influences working practices. Evidence of the internationalisation of teaching and research on a day to day basis is widespread across all of Nottingham’s campuses at an individual academic level, driven in part by a sense of personal ownership and professional responsibility but also by the practicalities of operating in culturally diverse environments. However, planned delivery and implementation arrangements are generally determined by local managers and as such heavily dependent on their individual interpretation and commitment, despite the existence of a formal university wide strategy.

But what might this research tell universities about successfully managing the international dimension of an employer brand? What lessons can be learned from the Nottingham experience?

Clearly academic staff play a crucial role in the internationalisation process of their institutions through their teaching practices and research portfolios. However, whilst universities with strong generic reputations will continue to attract good quality academic staff in a competitive and demand driven employment market, failure to align an employer brand promise based on international distinctiveness with the perceptions of prospective employees may ultimately have a corrosive long term impact in terms of organisational fit and expectations. In this context, university HR and marketing departments need to work together more closely and coherently to conceptualise the ‘employment experience’ and identify and clarify organisational values in a way that will create long term value and influence.

Correspondingly, senior managers must also create fair and uniform organisational and governance structures (whilst allowing for appropriate local flexibility) as partnerships perceived to be intrinsically ethnocentric and unequal will result in isolation and marginalisation, impacting adversely on professional identities and ultimately the success and longevity of the organisations international brand.

The research discussed in this blog post was conducted as part of the dissertation requirement for the MA in International Higher Education.

Adrian Mateo is Marketing Manager of the Faculty of Social Sciences at The University of Nottingham

Posted in Higher EducationInternationalisationMarketing