TCD rebrands itself, but at what cost?
Trinity College Dublin, Ireland’s oldest university, is rebranding itself. Under its identity initiative, TCD’s name will be changed to ‘Trinity College, the University of Dublin’ and its logo will be modified to give it a more modern look. It’s debatable whether the proposed changes are necessary. The price tag of €100,000, however, could have been allocated to teaching and research instead.
TCD is over 400 years old, but recently, it was suddenly felt that its current name allegedly causes ‘fragmentation and confusion’. We are told that when academics travel abroad, especially to the US and Asia, they feel that the word ‘college’ leads foreigners to believe that TCD might not be a university. Also, overseas students might be confused when they search for a university in Ireland that they could attend. But those claims are questionable, to say the least. There are many other institutions whose name does not contain the word ‘university’, but that are perfectly recognisable worldwide, such as MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), King’s College London, and Caltech, to name a few. The reason why people know about them is not because they are leaders in branding themselves, but because they excel in what they are supposed to be doing: research and teaching.
Another problem is that with the new initiative, TCD will seemingly have two names, keeping the current one for academic publishing while the new one will be used for everything else. But it’s unclear how this will improve name recognition overseas. Foreign students and academics browsing the web to obtain information on the university are likely to be confused and wonder if the TCD they saw in a journal publication is the same institution as the TCUD (or is it TCTUD?) they will see online.
Moreover, the university will change its logo and colours, reportedly to avoid a clash with the brands of Ryanair and Ikea. But since when are Ryanair and Ikea competing for students with TCD? It’s difficult to figure out how a Chinese student would confuse Ryanair with TCD and get to the airport instead of the university for the year’s first class.
Further, there will only be two colours—blue and white—on the university logo, instead of the current five colours. This, according to the professionals in charge of the redesign, is because fewer colours is more ‘contemporary and vibrant’ than more colours. The consultants also observed that blue and gold are associated with ‘value or convenience’ and that blue and yellow ‘lacks a sense of quality and sophistication’, while a blue background is ‘modern and crisp’. One problem here is that this makes no sense at all. Are those claims based on advanced training in colour analytics? Or a PhD in Art History? Or just chats in a pub?
This is not to say that branding a university is not important, or that marketing campaigns to attract foreign students and talented staff from overseas should be neglected, especially in a constrained budgetary environment as currently faced by the Irish education sector. A more international student population and staff make a learning institution more diverse and can foster innovation, new ideas, and more.
But the difficulty with the proposed changes is their cost. The bill to rebrand the university has been reported to be about €100,000. The firm Behaviour and Attitudes was paid €22,150 to conduct market research and Huguenot, a company which provides identity and design services, will charge €80,000 for its expertise, presumably in colour analysis and related matters.
The rise of questionable spending seems to be a generalised problem. TCD’s expenditures on consultants have more than doubled since Patrick Prendergast became provost. The Sunday Times reported that TCD spent €3.7 million on consultants in 2013, up 144% from 2012, when €1.5 million was spent. In 2010 and 2011, TCD spent just under €800,000 annually. It is difficult to reconcile those numbers with TCD’s Strategic Plan, which outlines ‘actions that involve rationalization and/or increased efficiencies’ and that states that the university will ensure that its ‘funds are spent on improving the quality of our academic activities’. Wasn’t this supposed to apply to the branding exercise as well?
At a global level, universities have suffered for quite a few years now from bloated administrations. Benjamin Ginsberg has called the phenomenon ‘the rise of the all-administrative university’ in his recent book entitled ‘The Fall of the Faculty’, which documents how academic staff have gradually seen their autonomy eroded by managers and administrators whose numbers and power have risen dramatically. For example, in the US, between 1975 and 2005, the number of academics increased by 51% but the number of administrative staff rose by 181%. Irish universities’ core staff is composed of 45% of academics and 55% of non-academics.
The result is large and inefficient academic bureaucracies that absorb scarce resources that could be directed to teaching and research, the core mission of universities. True, such bureaucracies may have been successful at some tasks, such as raising funds from former students and philanthropists, and at attracting more international students. However, the positive impact is reduced by the increasingly large amounts of funds absorbed by bureaucracy itself.
Further, even the most simple tasks become more complicated due to the large number of phone calls and emails and waiting periods needed to accomplish them. There’s a joke circulating in some universities that it takes two or three days’ notice to order a few sandwiches for a departmental event. The problem is that the joke often materialises.
How can that situation be improved? One way would be to include, in global university rankings, criteria that provide incentives to reduce administrative fat. If an institution spends too much on overhead and not enough on teaching and research, it would lose points, and vice-versa. It’s not clear how this would affect the current rankings because many suffer from the same ailment. But those that innovate and become more efficient would surely rise rapidly towards the top, and thus attract more students, better academics, and more donations. It sounds like a winning strategy.