Inevitably there has been criticism from certain quarters about the decision of the formerly named University of Western Sydney to change its title to Western Sydney University. So what’s in a name? Well, quite a lot actually. The blunt reality for higher education institutions is that in a competitive market they need to construct a compelling narrative about themselves.
Universities such as Oxford, Harvard, and even our own Melbourne and Sydney have many years of history on their side which, even though they are indeed currently excellent institutions, enables them to trade off those marketers’ dreams – the intangibles prestige and reputation.
Thus the new moniker Western Sydney University is intended, as part of a broader institution-wide strategy, to transform it from the realms of a so-so suburban university to one which, in the words of Vice-Chancellor Barney Glover, is a national powerhouse and an integral part of “one of the fastest growing and most dynamic areas in the country”.
Taken in the broader strategic context, the re-naming can be seen as part of the university’s intent to clearly differentiate itself from other suburban-located institutions, while at the same time signalling that it has no aim of modelling itself upon Group of Eight-style universities. It is still rooted in the idea of western Sydney, but that idea itself is transformed from a collection of suburbs to a unique growth area with a strong and differentiated identity.
In advertisements in today’s The Australian Higher Education supplement the university is clear about how it now ought to be perceived – as leaders in the “most dynamic economic and cultural region in Australia”, as a “dynamic institution for talented, ambitious people”, which “pushes the boundaries of how knowledge is exchanged, a place that is student centred and research led” and which “prepares graduates not just to get jobs, but to create them”.
As an aside, in this context congratulations are due to the Australian National University for being elevated to Australia’s first university in the world’s top 20 – coming 19th in the 2015 QS World University Rankings. As half of this ranking is derived from academic and employer reputational surveys, this result reflects ANU’s unique place in Australian higher education and the the narrative it has constructed for itself as a world-class research-intensive university.
University marketers and public relations teams fully understand the need to deliver and maintain a convincing, evidence-based narrative around their institution.
Yet, because modern universities are large and multi-layered, incorporating diverse centres, colleges, schools and institutes, they can only do so much.
This is why it is important for all those with a university’s best interests at heart to join in the “story telling” about their institution. At the Faculty level, such awareness is crucial in promoting and marketing brilliant achievements and fabulous courses and programs. If Faculty members don’t tell these overlooked stories, who will?
We at HECG recognise that constructing powerful narratives is not easy; but we also know that it is eminently achievable. Which is why in the next few weeks we will be releasing a special paper designed to help those in Faculties to promote and disseminate their hitherto hidden gems and overlooked excellence.
Great stories about what you do and what you achieve – and what your students love – are an essential component of maintaining and developing thriving institutions.