Branding Tomorrow’s University

Education keeps us relevant. It makes us better job candidates and increases job security. Learning something new helps keep aging brains sharp. The need for lifelong education is clear.

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Ask recent grads about their career outlook today, and most would say there simply aren’t enough jobs to go around. Ask employers if they enjoy being able to pick and choose from a saturated labour pool, and many respond that they actually can’t find adequately skilled job candidates.

Now consider that half of the jobs available today didn’t even exist 25 years ago. Whether it’s a social media manager, a genetic counsellor or big data analyst, these job titles reflect the dizzying rate of technological and societal change. In five years, some of these jobs may be extinct. It’s no wonder that traditional educational institutions struggle to deliver relevant education for jobs that come in and out of existence in response to such change. Is it even possible for higher educational institutions to keep pace? Part of the solution lies in how we think about education.

The goal of conferring graduates with a degree and up-to-the-minute skills may be out-dated. Tomorrow’s schools will likely operate according to a new truth: education isn’t something that ends once the mortarboards are in place. Instead, we must rethink education and embrace it as an essential lifetime activity.

Education keeps us relevant. It makes us better job candidates and increases job security. Learning something new helps keep aging brains sharp. The need for lifelong education is clear.

How can higher education institutions brand themselves according to this reframed notion of learning?

Schools of tomorrow will continue to differentiate and communicate their values through brand, as they do today. However, a school’s brand should be much more tightly integrated with its business strategy to reflect what will be a dramatically different operating model.

As schools evaluate their ability to compete today and in the future, three actions should be top of mind.

1. Become an integrator brand

As an integrator brand, schools take the opportunity to create an integrated ecosystem around the student, connecting employers, industry leaders, associations, government and nongovernment organizations, alumni, and even competitive education brands together. In this scenario, the brand facilitates constant, up-to-the-minute feedback from key stakeholders to ensure the curriculum is always timely and relevant. The cost of campus life would become less of a barrier to students as schools become better suited to connect them with complementary physical and virtual education resources around the world.

2. Envision greater student control

Placed firmly at the center of this integrated ecosystem is the student, who plays a much more active role in determining course content and deliverables. With such a wide array of educational resources available, students can personalize and fine-tune their studies to a much greater degree. And with direct, ongoing access to the employers students wish to target, they can make the necessary adjustments in their education to stay relevant to those organizations. We could also see a blurring of the boundary between education and employment as organizations start hiring students before they even graduate.

3. Commit to providing a lifetime of learning

Tomorrow’s school brand must make clear its commitment to lifelong education as a basic necessity. As the student enters working life, he/she remains a student, still integrated in the school’s ecosystem, always upskilling to maintain his/her relevance and advance his/her career. As each life stage comes along, tomorrow’s student will rely on the school to help him/her navigate and prepare for every challenge and opportunity. As the notion of retirement continues to evolve, so, too, does the belief that older people are somehow less relevant in the workplace or in society. In a sense, tomorrow’s students will never really graduate. There will be no alumni—just students who’ve been learning longer.

Institutions that embrace this new paradigm of learning and create an integrated ecosystem that connects all key stakeholders through brand will reap considerable rewards. Competition between the schools of tomorrow will be more fierce than ever before because they will no longer be targeting students, they will be cultivating loyal and lifelong customers — the holy grail of marketing.


Senior Director, Creative