Conference: How can Asian universities build a strong global brand?
Higher education leaders meet in Tokyo to talk about reputation management for universities
By Anders Karlsson, PhD Posted on 26 March 2014
How can a university manage its brand in a global arena? What are the challenges and opportunities presented by online education? How should non-native English speaking universities navigate in an increasingly English speaking world?
These were some of the topics discussed when about 100 higher-education leaders convened in Tokyo March 6 and 7 along with members of the public and press. The Reputation Management in Higher Education Conference was co-organized by the British Council and the World 100 Reputation Network, as a part of a series of meetings on Higher Education in East Asia organized by the British Council.
The British Council Japan has hosted a series of conferences on the theme of university reputation management since 2011, involving over 300 leaders of higher education in Japan and beyond. Azusa Tanaka, Head of Education, said reputation management has been a topic of growing interest to universities, and the conferences help to further the conversation.
When we first initiated dialogue in this area, it was seen as rather unusual to look at internationalization activities from the perspective of reputation management. However, the theme of reputation management has now gained great traction in Japan and beyond, with the aspiration of institutions to feature in the international rankings acting as a powerful motivating force.
In addition, universities are placing increasing value on communicating their core mission to distinguish themselves from other universities in an age in which they face increasing global competition. The people who have engaged with us on the dialogue of reputation management ... are now telling us that reputation is increasingly vital for universities.
In a globalized world, where information spreads virally on the Internet, reputation is an increasingly vital component for the success of the university enterprise. Academic reputation –call it the academic brand – is the perception of value associated with the institution, be it in the quality of research, the expectations of a quality education and a good job to follow, or the societal impact of the university's activities.
Research shows that a university's reputation is a major priority for academics changing jobs. It is the top consideration for mobile students, even above tuition fees and course content. Reputation is also a key factor in attracting partnerships and funding from alumni, philanthropists and industry.
With the rapid rise of Asia in higher education and research, how should Asian institutions make a footprint and build a strong global reputation?
World Reputation Rankings
To open the conference, Times Higher Education Editor Phil Baty (@PhilBaty) illustrated the importance of university rankings, or league tables, by presenting the 2014 Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings. Baty outlined the methodology of the reputation rankings, which are based on subjective expert opinions on research and education. Stressing the importance of a solid foundation, he quoted Socrates: "The way to gain a good reputation is to endeavor to be what you desire to appear." In other words, there are few, if any, shortcuts to long-term reputation building.
In the 2014 reputation ranking, not surprisingly, the US and UK dominate, taking all of the top 10 spots, with the six "super brands" on top: Harvard, MIT and Stanford followed by Cambridge, Oxford and UC Berkeley. The first Asian institution, the University of Tokyo, moved down from position 9 to position 11. For the first time, however, Japan had three universities in the top 50, the others being Kyoto University at 19 and Osaka University at 50.
This was acknowledged in the congratulatory address given by Hakubun Shimomura, the Japanese Minister for Education, Sports, Culture, Science and Technology. Minister Shimomura mentioned that the ambition was to have 10 Japanese universities ranked among top 100 in the international league tables in 10 years.
Professor Masako Egawa, Executive VP of the University of Tokyo, outlined the university's ambitious branding strategy. She highlighted the need for three different brands according to the different venues the university was present: as Japan's top university for the domestic market, as the regional hub of Asia, and as a leading global university when reaching out towards the global market.
In the discussions, a love-hate relationship with the rankings was evident. Some were concerned about how well arts and humanities and the social sciences were reflected; others expressed a concern that the universities had becomes slaves to the rankings rather than the rankings reflecting their quality. But rankings are here to stay, according to a 2013 study by the European University Association: "Even if academics are aware that the results of rankings are biased and cannot satisfactorily measure institutional quality, on a more pragmatic level they also recognize that an impressive position in the rankings can be a key factor in securing additional resources, recruiting more students and attracting strong partner institutions."
Other comments touched upon society's expectations of the university, the need to show return on investments, and the concern that increased competition is at odds with a university's mission to pursue fundamental, curiosity-driven research, which may not render immediate economic return.
"As though symbolically, the conference was held at "Academy Hills" on the 49th floor in Tokyo's Roppongi Hills Tower (albeit not an "ivory tower"). In that vein, one delegate commented that discussions such as these often ended up being internal because other parts of society, such as industrial leaders and politicians, do not participate. Hence, it is important to reach out and engage other stakeholders."
Radical transformations needed in higher education
An avalanche in higher education is coming, and when an avalanche comes, you can't stand still.
These were the words of Sir Michael Barber (@MichaelBarber9), Chief Education Advisor of Pearson and co-author of the 2013 policy report "An Avalanche is coming" for the Institute of Public Policy Research in the UK. According to Dr. Barber, the next 50 years can be a golden age for education, but only if all stakeholders seize the initiative and act with ambition.
Changes ahead are radical and coming fast – like a surging avalanche. Citizens will need to engage more in continuous learning, university leaders must embrace new technology – notably MOOCs (Massive Online Learning Courses) – and universities will need to carve out their niche in an increasingly competitive market. Dr. Barber spoke about the value of degrees falling and the "unbundling" of education, with courses becoming "a la carte" choices instead of set menus in terms of a few fixed academic programs. Universities, he said will come in different flavors: the elite university, the mass university, the niche university, the local university, and the lifelong learning mechanism.
The remaining time was dedicated to a series of closed workshops with about 80 participants from Asia and Europe, mainly the UK. The audience comprised vice presidents responsible for research or internationalization, university directors in charge of communication, and research office staff.
Learn from Usain Bolt
Jo Kite, Director of Communications at the University of Birmingham in the UK, told the story of how the university worked systematically to increase their impact, from focusing on research excellence, to increasing student engagement and satisfaction – steps that were also likely to build the university's reputation.
In addition, their reputation got a boost in another, unanticipated way.
Learn from benchmarking – and being unique
In a session on the importance of research excellence for reputation, Dr. Anders Karlsson of Elsevier discussed metrics for showcasing excellence, the importance of international collaborations and how this may connect to outcomes in rankings. He also emphasized the need for collaboration across boundaries within the university, pointing out that research strategy needs to have an international perspective from the onset.
In the same session Dr. Jiro Kokuryo, Dean and Professor at Keio University, made are strong plea for universities to nurture their unique strengths instead of just running with the crowd and to trying to be excellent in all areas, which in his opinion was a race that could not be won. To highlight unique contributions, he gave the example of Keio University, founded by Yukichi Fukuzawa, a Japanese civil rights activist and liberal ideologist, who played an important part in opening Japan to the world during the middle of the 19th century. The Japanese universities, according to Dr. Kokuryo, should help to "solve global issues using Japanese wisdom" rather than try to solve Japan's issues with western knowledge.
Before the London Olympics, Birmingham University, known for its development and support of sports, hosted the Jamaican Track and Field team, including the world's fastest man —Usain Bolt — for the team's pre-Olympic training camp. The London Olympics turned out to be the most successful ever for the Jamaican team. The world's fastest man, in a comment to the BBC, thanked the people of Birmingham and the University, saying, "You guys helped us to come out and do our best."
Learn from networking
Dr. Christopher Tremewan, Secretary General of the Association of Asia Pacific Rim Universities (APRU), spoke about APRU's role in the Asia Pacific Region, and their interactions with the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) organization. APRU's activities include organizing summer schools and joint research on themes such as global health, multi-hazards, sustainability and climate change.
Mark Sudbury, Director of Communications at University College London, spoke about the Russell Group of 24 leading UK universities and their influencing power. The Russell Group was formed by university presidents initially meeting at Hotel Russell at Russell Square in London in 1994. The Russell Group universities produce 30 percent of the UK's science and engineering graduates, nearly 81 percent of doctors and dentists and two-thirds of the UK's "world leading" research, according to the UK's Research Assessment Exercise. Sudbury described how the Russell Group has reached a position where they are the first to be asked by media when there are questions around education and research policy.
Learn from success
Presenters gave several examples on how universities achieve excellence and a global presence. Professor Yonge Ha, VP of External Affairs for Pohang University of Science and Technology (POSTECH) in South Korea, told the fascinating story of how POSTECH – from its founding in 1986 by POSCO, the world's fourth largest steelmaker – has risen to become one of Korea's top universities, now making a footprint on the world stage. Secrets to their success were: having the initial full financial support of POSCO; faculty recruitment, with 92 percent of the professors having a degree from a university abroad; accepting only the top 1 percent of students; and full autonomy for the university management.
Jasper Steen Winkel, Director of Communications at the University of Copenhagen, described the role of his university in the economic development of Denmark, the story also supporting their reputation as contributors to society. A study showed that the companies that collaborated with the university saw a higher increase in productivity compared to companies that did not. Aside from numerical data, case studies showed mutual benefit for the university and companies in terms of knowledge exchange. Winkel also told the story about how the senior management at the university gets training in how to be influential in political discussions on higher education, research and innovation, again supporting reputation management in circles of importance.
Learn from industry
If there was a lesson to learn from the conference, then it may be that reputation management needs strategy and a professional approach, and should be a part of local, regional and national branding. In a "thinking outside the box" closing address by Ian Pearman, Chief Executive of the UK advertising and brand management agency AMV BBDO, spoke about the intangible assets in brands, the difficulty of controlling brands, and the need to use humor in business-to-business marketing. True to his message, he illustrated his talk with videos, such as the Harvard baseball team lip-syncing the pop hit "Call Me Maybe," which at one time was the first thing showing up on YouTube searches for "Harvard"; the Australian Metro safety campaign "Dumb Ways to Die," and the now famous example of how a country musician used YouTube to fight back against a non-responsive airline company that had broken his guitars.
With these brand realities in mind, the participants could take the elevator down from the 49th floor of the tower back to Tokyo – indeed one of the world's most brand-conscious metropolises.
Elsevier Connect Contributor
Dr. Anders Karlsson (@AKTokyo) is VP of Global Academic Relations at Elsevier. With Tokyo as his base, he covers the Asia Pacific Region. He has a background in science diplomacy, having headed the Embassy of Sweden Office of Science and Innovation in Tokyo for five years, as well in academia, serving as Professor of Quantum Photonics at the Royal Institute of Technology – KTH in Sweden for 10 years. He has a PhD in Electrical Engineering, also from KTH. A frequent lecturer on science and innovation policy and research management, he was invited to speak at the British Council Tokyo Conference on the topic of Reputation Building via Excellence in Research.