GEORGE BOWDEN

Four years ago, what was then Brunel University West London became embroiled in a bitter argument with one of its closest peers, Thames Valley University.

Thames’ bosses had decided they wanted to make the most of their location within England’s capital, and ditch confusing connotations with policing the shires, and a river that snakes from Kent to Gloucestershire.

To do this, they proposed a name change to the much grander, and Google friendly, University of West London. At the time, this was a novel measure requiring lengthy archaic and regulatory approval from the Queen’s Privy Council.

Hearing of Thames Valley’s plans, Brunel launched a bid to halt the process. ‘Too close for comfort,’ marketers said, as they argued that only Brunel could stake a claim to West London, having been its home in various forms for close to 50 years. Brunel’s complaint was overlooked by the Privy Council, which granted permission for Thames’s name change in 2010.

This incident makes Brunel’s recent decision to change its name all the more interesting. Just two years after ruling in favour of Thames Valley, Privy Councillors would consider an almost replica bid for Brunel to change its name for many of the same reasons. By this point, though, the great British university identity crisis had well and truly begun.

The Coalition Government’s higher education reforms provide much of the context to universities’ fervent drive towards rebranding, image, and identity. A more developed market of higher education sees students bear more of the costs of their education through increased tuition fees. And a more developed market provides students with greater choice.

So far, so logical.

With an emphasis on choice, and an empowered student body seeking the best value for their newly inflated tuition fees, universities had to think hard about where their funding might come from. Huge block grants flowing from the Treasury were now a thing of the past. More choice for domestic students also meant more competition for individual universities. Suddenly, home students became a much less ‘bankable’ body of customers.

It was difficult to predict what was going to happen. Would student numbers fall off a cliff, as many newer universities feared? Would home students flee to new online providers, preferring to stay at home with Mum and Dad to save cash? It was a worrying time for all but the most elite British universities.

With help from the government withdrawn, and with a very large proportion of their funding now coming from the students they were able to recruit, many middle-ranking universities literally expanded their horizons by going abroad.

International students are arguably seen as cash cows by university managers. Targeted, marketed to, and then shipped into the country en masse, universities were quick to learn that they could charge foreign students figures that dwarfed those of home students, and get away with providing them with fewer added benefits once they were here. In business-speak, margins were higher.

Rather than being placed at the centre of a university’s international agenda, students from abroad were more likely to be seen simply as uncritical consumers willing and able to pay more than others.

Commercial pressures, therefore, informed recruitment strategies, and when recruiting international students alongside the now more discerning home students, universities came to realise that a clear brand that encompasses both heritage and location provided a clear advantage.

There are many examples of this strategy in action.

Thames Valley became West London, and the defunct University of Wales Institute Cardiff became Cardiff Metropolitan. Leeds Metropolitan University is now Leeds Beckett University, after a report found the word ‘Metropolitan’ too downmarket. The heritage of the city’s Beckett Park provided inspiration, with bosses spending over £300,000 on its new identity, and in delivering fully-branded hoodies to students at home and abroad.

Brunel University West London, then Brunel University (comma) London and now the all-in-one Brunel University London, suggests that, while not quite as dramatic a change as elsewhere, many of the same reasons lie behind Brunel’s new identity. The logo is clearer and more modern, and the slightly-altered crest evokes heritage (as well as being uncomfortably similar to that of Anglia Ruskin’s). The ‘University London’ is perfectly positioned for the inevitable ‘of’ in years to come.

Prestigious and historic universities aren’t precluded from becoming image conscious either. Most recently, King’s College London faced into pressures to ‘re-imagine’ its brand too, despite being the third oldest university in England. King’s management found that, outside of the UK, the word ‘college’ had negative connotations – it didn’t befit a 21st century university – and that it confused those coming from abroad to study.

To combat this, they devised a name change – to King’s London – simultaneously offending influential alumni, current students, and grammar pedants a like.

King’s principle was lambasted by student media during a cringe-inducing interview. There was a well-attended public hearing, with university managers on trial, and in the end, King’s backtracked and deferred the final decision to a committee.

Re-branding doesn’t just make universities slicker and more similar, and more appealing to foreign students; it also allows them to treat the change of logo as “news” in of itself. While this was most likely unintentional at King’s College – Leeds Beckett seemed to be suspiciously prepared.

Dozens of other universities are investing heavily in marketing too, often with similar results, and with the cap on international students to be lifted in the autumn, British universities have everything to gain from packaging their products as best as they can – no matter how homogeneous the end result might be.