April is the cruellest month, wrote T.S. Eliot. If you are a university vice chancellor you might think that July and August are worse; it was a miserable summer for higher education reputations, as universities found themselves rounded upon by press and politicians for a litany of sins, including eye-watering VC pay, grade inflation and a ‘usurious’ interest rate on student loans.
Wonkhe contributors have analysed causes and effects and we won’t rehearse those here. Our interest is in the deeper roots of higher education’s public relations problems and how a different approach to reputation management might benefit the sector. It’s a topic we will be speaking about in detail on Monday November 6 at Wonkfest, and which we have previously covered in our ‘Leading Reputations’ Wonkhe workshop.
The authentic university
“The way to gain a good reputation is to endeavour to be what you desire to appear,” said Socrates. Authenticity – being clear about your purpose and behaving in a manner which is consistent with that purpose – is the essential ingredient of effective public relations, because those relationships depend on trust, which in turn depends on people or organisations behaving in ways that are expected of them. While corporations have broadly grasped this tenet, and are rushing towards a purpose-driven life, universities frequently appear to be running the other way. As the BBC’s Sean Coughlan wrote recently: “(It) does feel like universities (are) having to think hard about identities and purposes they once took for granted.”
This is manifest in recent discussions about loans, pay, Brexit, curricula, widening participation and grade inflation, which can be broadly summarised with the question: “Just what is a university for?” The issues of mission and values loom so large in higher education as much because of its ambition as its complexity and diversity. It is difficult to be what you desire to appear if those desires are legion, sometimes contradictory, and far from clear internally or externally. Or to put it another way: If you stand for everything, you end up falling over.
Support and consent
It is our contention that this struggle with purpose is, in part, a symptom of the sector’s approach to reputation leadership with its emphasis on marketing over strategic communications. The latter is essential to mission because a clear mission depends on gaining the consent and support of other people, which in turn requires trust and mutually-profitable relationships.
Meanwhile the academy risks dislocating itself from those should-be supporters, especially those in government, who cannot see through the fog to the mission either and use the absence of a strong message to fashion their own and attack.
Perhaps the big challenges facing UK higher education are the inevitable consequences of the push-me pull-you of a quasi-market? Senior politicians call for unilateral fee reductions; but for an HEI to do so at a time when British families equate quality with price is a really stupid idea. What is surprising is that universities and the broader sector is itself surprised by public reactions to how this market operates. Again, this appears to be a symptom of how the sector views reputation and its management. There is a deficiency in boundary-spanning, a focus on internal and sectoral publics at the expense of the external. This is manifest in a sectoral obsession with league tables at the expense of other, perhaps more useful, narratives about global HE. “We’ve turned our unis into aimless money-grubbing exploiters of students,” screams the economics editor of the Sydney Morning Herald. The majority of republican voters in the United States think that universities and colleges are A BAD THING, says Pew research. Wake up and smell the intercontinental coffee.
It is also signalled by the multitude of defensive articles that appear in trade publications (rather than those read by the people universities need to re-engage), by incredulity that a sector’s claims to expertise might be undermined by its acceptance of a teaching quality assessment framework that doesn’t assess teaching, and an over-reliance on trade associations to fight the sector’s corner, when individual institutions also need to pitch in. (And by pitching in, we don’t mean VC’s defending their pay.)
These challenges are themselves entangled in the history of the academy and its labyrinthine structures. It is difficult to effectively engage outsiders if you take a year to decide how to do it (and then forget why it mattered, while the demands of the market seem imminent). Universities are perhaps also victims of their own public affairs success; senior leaders have been preposterously effective in securing healthy settlements in successive comprehensive spending reviews. But a quick phone call from the VC to an alma mater minister won’t cut it any more. A broader set of publics (those pesky voters) have made sure of that.
Public relations is most likely to be excellent – to contribute to organisational effectiveness – when it is an integral part of the strategic management process, when it is providing the dominant coalition with vital intelligence that helps inform the organisation’s place in the world. This is the prize for public relations in higher education and what we’ll cover at Wonkfest. To quote Eliot again: “We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”