Let’s give you some data first of all.
These are Complete University Guide rankings for every year between 2008 and 2022. You can filter by region, Wonkhe group, and – as a treat – mission group. The table is sorted by 2022 rankings – if you don’t work in senior management and don’t know this off by heart you can also use the highlighter at the top right. Mouse over any cell of the table to see a line graph of that provider’s rankings over time, and changes in the underlying score that drives the ranking.
What really fascinated me about this is how static the table is. There are very few examples of meteoric rises (Harper Adams, Lincoln, Edge Hill) or catastrophic plummets (Buckingham) – but fundamentally if you were upper-mid table in 2008 you are very likely to be upper-mid table in 2022, despite the sector having experienced an incredible 14 years of changes. For a league table compiler, you’d want isolated drama against a backdrop of settled order – rankings that change too quickly are not as popular as it stops us from building narratives from data artefacts.
Like much paradata relating to the sector, CUG takes an idiosyncratic approach to identifying specific providers – using a shortened common name that stays the same year on year (other than, for some reason, 2022) rather than provider reference numbers.
This reminded me that you can’t use actual names of providers as they change too regularly – there is a whole field of enquiry relating to the design and presentation of the written name of a university and small changes happen a lot. The right combination of prepositions, definite articles, locations, and proper names can yield (possibly) recruitment gains, research success, and some really impressive business cards.
It doesn’t look like anybody has ever ranked university naming conventions, so I thought I’d have a go. Using a fictional name to spare blushes, and in reverse order, here are my completely arbitrary top ten.:
University naming conventions ranking 2023
10. Stroud University
Plain, unadorned, and unprepossessing. These days, to me, this feels fairly old fashioned – as if nobody has thought about the name since it was assigned by the Privy Council. To get away with this you either have to be so famous that it feels like an ironic move, or so new that you have a chance of redefining the category.
9. University of Stroud
The “of” lends a little more heft, but fundamentally this is a fairly basic construction, and you would expect a fairly basic provider to use it. Again, there is an old-fashioned feel, but one that lends itself more to an attempt to call on tradition,
8. Valleys University, Stroud
Ah, the classic dilemma. You have a cool non-geographic name, but nobody knows where you are, and you can’t just use the place name because somebody else has grabbed it. So you add a simple suffix, almost like the first line of your postal address – though fundamentally you are a step away from adding your post code.
7. The University of the Valleys, in Stroud
A bit like the version above, but longer. Much longer. It does sound a little more considered, but your name is now so long that people will shorten it in everyday use – and not in a reliable way that the branding team can quietly lean back in on.
6. The University of the Valleys/Valleys University
You can also double down on your non-geographic name, limiting your ability to recruit students who have heard Stroud is a great party town. There’s a certain self-confidence here that I rather like – an a saints name or similar really adds some heft here and you are starting to look distinctive.
5. Stroud Valleys University
The middle word was a millstone in the nineties. It was all too clear that you needed to distinguish yourself from another, better known, provider in the same city. But as time has passed, this snobbery has mostly worn away and we are left to judge the quality of your middle name alongside your location. A good combination can honestly feel quite impressive, but this one is very easily improved as we shall see.
4. The University of Stroud
In the early 2010s there was a rush to this construction – perhaps the much vaunted “level playing field” made everyone want an iconic definite article. Not just any university in Stroud, it cries, the famous one that you feel like you should have heard of. The trouble is, these days, everyone does it and it feels a little run of the mill. It’s not a name you’d choose if you wanted to stand out, but some universities don’t want to stand out.
3. The Valleys University
On the other hand, doing it with a non-geographic indicator in reverse order still sounds pretty good. There’s a whiff of an exclusive private school here – one that you would feel judged for not knowing about. Perfectly lends itself for that single word shortening too.
2. Stroud Institute/Stroud Valleys Institute
Not using “university” at all is a nervy move. Some places get away with it through a long history, some places do it to define a new identity. For a challenger institution this is a very good move – not least as it saves you having to apply for university title as a strategic choice rather than because you can’t face going through something like the NDAPs process ever again.
1. The Stroud Valleys University
Our winner has everything – the definite article, the location, a cool middle name. It almost demands you stop and give the name your attention as you speak or write it. I’ve never seen it done without the middle name (“The Stroud University”) but I think it could work equally well.
I need hardly add that these are my personal ill-considered views only, and that your university name (specifically) is fantastic.