PAUL WOODGATES, PA HIGHER EDUCATION EXPERT
University of Leicester played a key role in the search for Richard III. But it's not the only university using stage-managed events to boost its brand.
Few who have followed the fascinating discovery of the remains of Richard III under a council car park can have missed the central role in the story of the University of Leicester. The story has, as the marketeers would put it, done a great job of enhancing the university’s brand.
From an academic viewpoint, the project shows that the University of Leicester has great strengths in osteoarchaeology and the ability to collaborate to bring together capabilities such as radiocarbon dating, DNA testing and facial reconstruction.
But the reason why the Richard III story captured the public imagination goes well beyond academic strength. The stage management of the emerging findings, using television, press and the web, created a palpable sense of theatre and excitement. Brands are built on such things.
Universities now routinely invest both time and money in the dark arts of brand values, logos and strap lines. Leicester itself proclaims that it is “Elite but not Elitist” – a good slogan no doubt but far less powerful than wall-to-wall television coverage of its part in digging up King Richard. And, whatever the traditionalists may say, brand is critically important for universities.
Stage managing the impact the university makes in the wider world, as Leicester has begun to do, is the right course to take to attract quality students and staff – and thereby, funding. Any university needs to pick the things it will be known for, based on its existing strengths and those it can reasonably acquire, and then devote itself entirely to pursuing those.
And critically, universities absolutely must get much better at talking to the world outside the campus boundary – as Leicester is showing. Too often universities think that their brand should be defined around their own images of themselves rather than what matters to anyone else.
A brand built on how they are developing knowledge to improve our world – whether by educating doctors, researching new super-thin materials, or finding out that a tyrant king wasn’t a tyrant after all – is so much more powerful than anodyne statements about how they judge themselves to be “excellent” and “world-class”.
If that means stage managing events and “celebrity academics”, then so be it: Brian Cox is no less of a physicist because he talks to the world.
Leicester’s experience with the Richard III discovery underlines that universities have powerful stories to tell about research and education that is useful, pushing the boundaries of human knowledge, making the world a better place, or just plain fascinating. They should come down from the ivory tower and talk.
Paul Woodgates is a higher education expert at PA Consulting Group