Should a University re-brand?

urlAs many people know, Western Sydney University recently rebranded (we ‘killed the bird’ logo replacing it with a shield and changed our name from University of Western Sydney).


This caused outrage in some quarters, mirth in others and a great deal of excitement elsewhere. After watching the debates go round for a few weeks, I noted on my Facebook page that I supported the re-brand: the many reactions reflected this broad range of feelings.


Criticisms levelled at the University fell into two broad areas:


  1. The amount of money spent on the re-branding; and
  2. Why should a university worry about branding?

I will not comment on the first because I know nothing about marketing budgets – but I am told that Western Sydney University historically spends less as a proportion of its budget than other comparable universities. Further, to look at a raw number without comparing it to a) what the university spent on marketing previously, and b) to look at money from a sector average – both give a false impression.


So should a university spend money on re-branding?


In an ideal world, the answer is obviously ‘no’.


But we do not live in an ideal world. We live in a world that is shaped by rankings, perceptions and structures that favour established universities (particularly Australia’s Group of Eight (or Go8): Melbourne, Monash, UQ, UNSW, ANU, UWA, Adelaide and Sydney University). These ranking create hierarchies that are reflective of the class and power relations across society. This is evidences in research funding – which they Go8 has argued should be further concentrated towards them (click here).


More than that, Greater Western Sydney has always had to deal with being considered as Sydney’s ‘other’ – and this has been reflected in attitudes regarding Western Sydney University. This is not unique to Western Sydney University: if reflects attitudes towards suburban and regional universities across Australia.


Having spent time at many universities across Australia over the last three years I see these hierarchies reflected across staff, students and the general public.


Dealing with universities from other parts of Australia, the commentary on universities not in the centre of town is frequently derogatory. In Sydney, if you suggest to colleagues from inner city campuses that they should attend a seminar at Western Sydney, the response is telling: they argue that they could not possibly ask their students to travel ‘out there’ – nor do they have time themselves. This is not unique to Sydney: I have seen similar attitudes expressed across Australia.


But it is the internal dialogue that emerges in many regional and suburban universities that has often shocked me: academic staff openly wondering what it would be like to work for a ‘real university’. They speak of their own university as being second class. Much of this language reflects the language of class and power structures of mainstream media that these same academics would criticise in their research.


And who suffers? The answer, of course, is our students.


With both external and internal derision, it does not take much knowledge of Foucault’s representation of power to understand why students often begin to mirror this themselves. Despite meeting some of the best students I have ever worked with at Western Sydney University, they are often full of self-doubt – and it is the attitude that they are surrounded with that sees this emerge.


Again, this is not unique to Western U students – I have met amazing students from regional universities who doubt their own talent.


As the Head of the Academy, I was often given feedback from employers and potential employers that our graduates are fantastic but lack confidence. More than that, some large employers have commented on the minimal numbers of applicants from the University – they compliment the one’s they receive, but are often all too few. When we asked the students why they did not apply for certain prestigious positions, the students stated that these positions where for students from the more prestigious (inner city) universities.


Will the re-branding address this?


On its own, no – but as part of broad suite of changes, it has.


Despite the criticisms from one of my favourite news sources – New Matilda – there has been a perceptible change both internally and externally in the attitude to the Western Sydney University following the re-branding.


The rebrand combined along with new initiatives such as The Academy, the new Graduate Research School (which I am now the Dean of), investment in new research infrastructure and a continued focus on teaching excellence (such as the Distinguished Teaching Fellows program) has given the students a new-found confidence.


Over my time here I have been impressed with the commitment to both scholarship and community engagement of our students. But this has been accompanied by a cultural cringe of being ‘out west’. (Again, something we see reflected in other universities whose geography is not ‘inner-city’). This has changed – and even in a few short months, the re-brand has played a small but important part.


This is because the campaign is focuses around student achievement. This is an achievement focussed on both excellence and overcoming adversity – including the inspiring story of Dang Thiak.


The critics that have mocked the re-brand barely noticed when UNSW or UWA rebranded.


But maybe it is because they too think that a university based in Western Sydney is not a real university – and maybe they think that such a university should not get too uppity in the way they see themselves.


In this way, some of the critics are merely perpetuating the myths of western Sydney – and contributing to snobbery that sees the West ignored on all sorts of issues: from the arts to recreation, transport, health and, of course, education.

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4 Responses to Should a University re-brand?

  1. Rebekah Taylor says:

    Your university is what you make it regardless of whether it’s in western Sydney or not. My academic transcript has nothing less than a distinction on it and I’m proud of these results (I worked really hard) even though they were of achieved in Western Sydney. We’re not substandard! Spending so much on the name change? I don’t think it was worth it. Employers don’t care.

  2. Rebekah Taylor says:

    Oh, and logo and colour????? I much preferred the blue! It’s ugly now!

  3. Carol Hopping says:

    All very true James. Geographically you are the centre of Sydney and the shift of so many Government agencies points to this area as the hub of Sydney.

  4. Kevin Moloney says:

    Dear James,
    I am sorry to be cynical but I feel your justification for re branding is self serving and quite sad.
    1) You are not likely to be critical of an institution that holds you in such high regard, in many ways, you are indeed their poster boy.
    2) Brands are subjective and emotional many alumni feel attached to the old brand as would any ex student to any institution i.e. How many times has Sydney University or any other esteemed institution changed its brand/logo/emblem/coat of arms?Tradition is the foundation of loyalty, nostalgia……….apotheosis?
    3) The process was abysmal and embarrassing . I now live in New Zealand it is going through a process considering changing the national flag. The estimated cost of the process is less than UWS/ WSU re branding but in that process design options were requested nation wide and globally. They received over 45,000 designs. A year later those were reduced to 50 submissions by a representative panel who then picked 5 options. This month there will be a referendum to select the preferred alternative. Then next year in March there will be another referendum where the alternative is pitched against the current flag.
    4) It is highly likely that the referendum in March will choose the current flag (much to my horror-I would like to see the Union Jack fade into the distance) but that is democratic and that is real ‘community engagement’. I have spent a lifetime fighting social injustice, ignorance and bureaucratic despotic tokenism and I am sorry to say the management of WSU is a prime example of the latter. Not to allow past students and current students the opportunity to contribute to the process of ‘rebranding’ was a shameful act of megalomania.

    Shame on you James your emotional drivel about the second class nature of Western Sydney and its institutions was justified by the speed and lack of consultation in which this second class shoddy process was carried out. Perhaps some more research needs to be conducted on the alienation of Western Sydney residents by the very institution that is supposed to be empowering them. Very sad indeed and a poor outcome for everybody apart from you and a few others.

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