July 15, 2010 – 7:04AM
Sydney University ranks highly among the world’s universities. Yet it has appointed a committee to conduct a branding operation that disappoints some. Photo: PETER BRAIG
To prepare for a competitive 21st century, Sydney University appointed a management branding committee that was to modernise the institution’s appearance and appeal. That committee then insisted that with few exceptions, every department, centre and foundation should lose its special identity.
The new brand — an old shield minus the Latin motto plus the university’s name in capitals – was to be prominent on all notepaper, personal cards, outdoor signs and indoor symbols.
The conduct of the branding operation has depended on new rules, demands for form-filling and little accountability for costs. Members of the University Senate might be surprised to learn about such practices and they’d be disappointed to learn that staff’s compliance has facilitated the work of the branders. A senior member of the university says: “Twenty years ago they would not have got away with this. Staff and students would have protested, management would have had to think again.”
A prominent member of the board of an established foundation says: “We continue to be very annoyed by demands that we lose our distinct logo and replace it with the same boring official sign, but what can we do?”
Being annoyed and being quiet about being annoyed are not going to challenge management policies. The university’s culture is meant to be different from government departments, from business corporations and the military — but is it?
American management companies were employed to encourage this business-oriented style of thinking, if indeed much thought went into their recommendations or the reaction to them. It’s more likely, if previous (1990s) use of the Boston Consulting Group is anything to go on, that recommendations about simplicity, efficiency and the merits of top-down controls were re-packaged to fit the university’s alleged new needs. To people concerned with managing a potentially non-compliant staff, such prescriptions about efficiency can be used to justify almost any expense.
Payments to US management companies are not easy to estimate. Most of my informants, close to the university’s governance, suggest that the bill would have topped $1 million and may well approach $1.5 million. Such spending occurs at a time when faculties’ non-teaching budgets have to be cut by 50 per cent, and the fees charged to students continue to rise.
A small fortune spent on new headed notepaper and simpler business cards comes at a considerable cost to educational priorities. Such allocation of funds may be affecting most Australian universities. Senior academics say that in British universities, 25 per cent of income is spent on administration and management, whereas in Australia the figure approaches 50 per cent.
A linear, one-size-fits-all policy that values obedience and is preoccupied with control has resulted in absurd ways of spending precious public funds.
A 63-page booklet includes brand-style guidelines to inform staff about ways to adjust their “tone of voice” to “audience variations”. In relation to students, staff are told to “speak confidently but don’t shout”. In conversation with future younger students, they are asked to be “highly energetic, enthusiastic and provocative”, whereas comments to older future students should “retain energy and temper enthusiasm”. When speaking with future international students, staff should “moderate (their) provocative attitude”. An instruction about use of language with future students says, “be concise and inspiring, use an informed vocabulary”.
Who takes this expensive childishness seriously?
It looks as though Sydney University staff have communicated to good effect in the past. The Times Higher Education Supplement provides a reliable world ranking of universities. Sydney usually does well.
It would be even closer to the top of the league but for The Times’ caveat about Sydney’s large staff-student ratios. Those ratios could be considerably improved if the money spent on branding had been used to employ more teaching staff.
Sydney University’s overall working culture may be more benign than the reported heavy-handed management at neighbouring universities — UNSW and Macquarie – but that’s no reason for the continuing silence about conduct that is alien to the spirit and vision of what a university could be.
The re-branding exercise at Sydney University is a depressing and disabling form of managerialism. Management has been mistaken for leadership.
Stuart Rees is Professor Emeritus at the University of Sydney.
23 comments so far
As senior academic staff at the University of Sydney, I agree with every word. Good on you Stuart. It’s high time we stopped such nonsense, because the next restructuring is going to make matters worse. Just check out the Green Paper!
anon – July 15, 2010, 7:44AM
As another academic staff member at USyd, Stuart Rees has got this absolutely right. We need more rat baggery within universities not unintelligent political correctness imposed by managers and, I’m sorry to say, some very senior academics who have presumably been poorly advised.
anon2 – July 15, 2010, 8:32AM
As a past member of the admin staff I remember the Boston Consulting Group of the 90s who crept around faculties interviewing all staff members — many of whom lost their jobs, so it doesn’t surprise me to see the ridiculous rebranding. The previous coat of arms was elegant and should never have been touched — it now looks like a featureless blob.
anon | Sydney – July 15, 2010, 8:42AM
Good to see someone speak out about this! The coroporate blanding-out of the USyd has been happening for some time, but this is an example of its insidiousness. In 2008, construction workers were costing the University $20,000 a day to do landscaping work. Meanwhile, small departments are denied small grants to put up video projector screens and buy proper audio visual units for lectures. Casual academic work has been frozen and full time academic staff asked to pick up the resultant slack, causing further stress for students and staff alike. This is all the result of a kind of corporate managerialism which prioritises the slick exterior and ignores the real heart of what a University is. When I was a student at USyd 22 years ago, the old lecture theatres were run down but we had good staff student ratios with small tutorials. This has been traded for slick new glass buildings and fancy letterhead. What fine thinkers we have as heads of our Universities!
Anony mouse – July 15, 2010, 8:43AM
Stuart, as always, speaks with wisdom and passion. Managerialsim has overtaken just about every other institution in our community, often including even the Churches. It has also established a foothold in the Universities and is killing the spirit of independent and fearless enquiry that should characterise a University. They are becoming degree mills to satisfy the narrow needs of industry rather than the cultural, political and social needs of our civilisation.
Lesm | Balmain – July 15, 2010, 8:50AM
I worked briefly in one of these multi-national “branding” agency. It was an insidious place made worse by the inherent dishonesty of the leading staffers. They seemed to be fully aware that they used exaggerated process and puffed-up rhetoric to lure vulnerable potential clients to make decisions about a seemingly unknown marketing “blackbox”. Their game was to try and extract as much in fee’s as possible per client. Their pitch was to grossly over-state the problems for which they magically could readily offer a solution. The solution often took the form of a lot of common-sense and a little bit of graphic design although it was never presented as transparently.
The clients are also to blame for letting themselves be duped. I can imagine groups of academic management, focused on other issues and with cross-faculty miscommunication or conflicting agenda’s. Such a fertile situation for some branding “con”sultant to swan in and be the vehicle for board management to create some type of centralised, self-serving “development” project. I wonder how many other educational institutions have been successfully targetted by these consultancies who are fully aware of these opportunities to exploit academic organisations?
Such ashame when the harbingers of independent thinking fail themselves in such a way…
Reader | Sydney – July 15, 2010, 8:51AM
From the sounds of it the Branding Committee have confused [Brand] image with culture. As a Brand strategist I would be seriously asking them about their single organising idea. That is what is it they actually want the University to be or become? A 63 page Brand Guideline document does not constitute a Brand strategy. This is purely cosmetic. If they truly want the University to be student centric then tone of voice isn’t really addressing the issue. Better accommodation, better and more flexible learning environments, perhaps even tailored learning curriculums would be a great point of difference but deleting a latin motto from the logo does nothing to enhance the strategy outcomes. Being also an ex-student I would be disappointed if they believe the best way forward for students and lecturers alike was to change the image and not the essence of learning in the 21st Century.
yellowsneakers – July 15, 2010, 8:57AM
Adopting the corporatist-managerial mindset as a framework for running any university, let alone a prestigious sandstone one, is tantamount to performing a societal lobotomy. We allow this at our risk.
Justifications along ‘efficiency’ lines are patent garbage when the observed net result is an explosion of administrative bureaucracy and fat fees to corporate consultants.
Academics and universities should be left to perform their research and teaching functions without interference from anti-intellectual corporate types, who are best left to get on with their slow destruction of the global economy.
Where is the NTEU in all of this?
Alexander der Grosse | Sydney – July 15, 2010, 8:59AM
Stuart Rees is spot on. As a student and employee of the University, as well as an graduate, it is heart breaking to see the tragic waste of money spent on vandalising our heritage for short term, expensive white elephants such as the pathetic mcdonaldised badge we are forced to put on absolutely everything. We may have had a marketing problem, but we have never had a branding problem. Our libraries are being deliberately run down to a point where they are just overcrowded computer labs with long queues, our capital is being expended on window dressing both online and underfoot, and yet our students are being sold a pup. Students, especially those from overseas whoappear to be the only focus we have these days, want value for money. They are far less interested in the beauty of the cobbles than the quality of the education. They want more tutors, more teaching staff and better research facilities. As an undergraduate, I was proud of my Uni which I represented at sport, and proud of my degree. I did not care about the tatty lecture theatres, but am still enormously grateful for the amazing quality of the teaching staff, and the library. Our teaching staff are still trully amazing, and the library staff dedicated, but they also are being sold out by the stupidity of the administration’s approach. We are a Uni, not Union Carbide, and should behave like one, being a place of diversity and engagement, not just conformity.
Jax – July 15, 2010, 9:12AM
The NTEU rolled over and played dead. Both unions have been so marginalised by the Howard government “reforms” that they are only interested in survival. Our student groups likewise are neutered by the imperitive to work huge hours to pay high fees and rent, and are becoming increasingly focused on getting their degrees and getting out into the workforce to pay their debts. There is no time for “independence and fearless enquiry” anymore. Academics are forced into a neverending chase after research points, which crucifies their ability to be stand up and be counted. Neither Labour or Coalition governments have helped the University sector, preferring to stage a race to the bottom, as with TAFE, to the lowest common denominator. We are content to squander our children’s and grandchildren’s intellectual heritage on short-term, short-sighted, cut-price commercial decisions which leave all universities rudderless and doomed to be degree factories for flawed economic gain.
Jax – July 15, 2010, 9:22AM
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I think the last line says it all. “Management has been mistaken for [creative?] leadership”.