Branding Malaysian education

The recent Mapcu conference raised someinteresting issues on promoting highereducation as a commodity and makingMalaysia a centre of educational excellence,S. INDRAMALAR reports. 

Think soft drinks, and most people will picture Coca-Cola; think fast food and chances are, McDonald’s will come to mind; and think of an ultimate driving machine and there is none other than BMW. The success of these products is largely due to the millions of dollars spent on branding.  

In education, recognisable and entrenched brands include the University of Oxford, Cambridge University, Insead and the Kellogg School of Management. 

HONG: “For students, branding has becomea shortcut in selecting a course and an institution.”

Branding in education, explains Rosie Hong, managing director of customer relationship management specialists Rapp Collins (M) Sdn Bhd, was an alien concept in the 1970s and maybe even the early 1980s.  

“However, now the language of marketing is everywhere in the education sector. Terms like ‘niche market’ and ‘branding’ are being used freely in education. Consumers now make their choices more and more based on branding. 

“For students, branding has become a shortcut to selecting a course and an institution,” says Hong. 

She was among four speakers for the session on “Marketing, PR and Communications: The Brand Dynamics of Promoting Education Malaysia” at the Malaysian Association of Private Colleges and Universities (Mapcu) National Higher Education Conference. The other three speakers were vice- president of the University of Nottingham Malaysia Prof Brian Atkin, vice-president of corporate affairs at University College Sedaya International Kit Chin and Education Quarterly's Mark Disney. 

Creating a brand 

Branding is about differentiation and making it easy for people to tell you apart from others. More than that, it is about getting prospective customers to see you as the only option, the only solution to their problem. 

Examples of brands that have won the highest level of customer loyalty are Apple computers, Disney, Body Shop, Harley Davidson, Mercedes-Benz, Volvo, Nike and McDonalds.  

“These are brands that have the real power to influence customers,” says Hong, who adds that companies spend millions on branding, an example being Microsoft Corporation, which spends around US$5mil (RM19mil) a day on branding. 

“If done properly, branding can be a company or an institution’s best asset,” says Hong. 

These concepts however were shot down by Prof Atkin who said education institutions cannot be likened to brands like Coca-Cola or McDonalds. Branding in education, he opines, should come with the quality and reputation a university or college builds over time. 

“My son may not agree with me but I do not think we can compare education institutions to Coca-Cola and McDonalds which don’t really project quality but a lifestyle. 

“The brand of UK education comes from the quality of its programmes and this has come about not by campaigns but because of its long history of education and the high-quality quality assurance systems,” says Prof Atkin. 

Maintaining a “brand,” he adds, is not achieved by million-dollar campaigns but by rigorous quality checks and maintaining a system that is operated by academics and not politicians. 

Of a similar view was Disney who said the issue of branding brought up an interesting point about how education has become a commodity. 

“Branding is a concept which a lot of educationists feel uneasy about. Are we (education and academia) a product? For example, when we use phrases like ‘value for money’? that does not sit comfortably when you are talking about a degree or an education. 

“However, at the same time, branding is necessary to some extent as well,” muses Disney. 

Brand guru in education Tan Sri Lim Kok Wing of the LimKokWing University College of Creative Technology however believes that good branding for the education industry is of pivotal importance if Malaysia aims to compete with the best in becoming a leading education provider.  

However, he stresses, brand-building must be founded on what is true and cannot sustain on hype and advertising alone. 

“You have to say what you are and do what you say you do and be as good as you claim to be,” says Lim adding that at the heart of successful branding was unfailing quality and unquestioning integrity. 

Although many branding experts say it takes about four years to build a brand, the duration it will take for education will be considerably longer, says Lim. 

PROF ATKIN:“The brandingof products likeCoca-Cola andMcDonald’scannot beapplied toeducation.”

“In education, it may take about 12 to 15 years. Education is viewed far more seriously than, say, eating cookies, and rightly so. It is not only about the future of our young people but also our young nation,” he says. 

Brand building, Lim stresses, is a long-term commitment on the part of management.  

“It is not a magic wand and is not a quick fix. It won’t solve recruitment and staffing problems overnight or double enrolments instantly. It is an on-going defining process that requires continual investment, energy and expertise.  

“At the end, the only way to build a great brand is through building a great institution,” he said. 

The second such conference organised by Mapcu was held at the Sheraton Subang Hotel and Towers last week and saw the participation of about 200 academics and administrators from public and private higher education institutions as well as foreign branch campuses here in Malaysia.  

Defining concepts 

Other very pertinent questions raised at the conference were what does making Malaysia a “centre of educational excellence” and promoting “Education Malaysia” really mean? Are we trying to market our home-grown programmes, universities and colleges as top class institutions comparable to established universities in the United Kingdom and Australia? Or, should Malaysia aim to be an education hub offering franchised programmes from foreign universities around the world? 

In his keynote address, deputy higher education minister Datuk Fu Ah Kiow urged universities and higher education institutions not to be complacent or run the risk of being left behind. 

“There are challenges and quite a few threats on the horizon and we cannot afford to let our standards drop. In order to move forward, we must realise that quality pays. Our higher education institutions must maintain high standards if we are to achieve our stated goal of becoming a centre of educational excellence.” 

Though Malaysia had a head start in developing its private higher education system via its twinning programmes with renowned British and Australian universities, Fu says countries in the region were fast becoming a real threat. 

“We must not allow others to come in and make gains at our expense. We must capitalise on our competitive advantages – our cultural, linguistic and religious diversity; our high quality of life and relatively low cost of living; political stability; state-of-the-art infrastructure and fantastic food! 

“On our part, the government will do its utmost to ensure that we have a policy and procedural framework that will help us achieve our goals.” 

Fu’s address more or less set the tone for the conference. Though the industry, particularly the private sector, still struggles with bureaucracy and lack of transparency in the approval and accreditation processes, criticisms and grouses were kept to a minimum. 

Says Disney, “Do we really want to promote Malaysia as a centre of educational excellence or an access to educational excellence? At the moment, perhaps the latter is a more accurate vision. 

“Right now, foreign students have still not quite got to grips on what we have going for them. We have a lot to offer but we have to get our act together and put things forward better.” 

Sedaya’s Kit Chin agrees “We must make sure that what we are doing is not mindless mimicry. We can learn from foreign universities and counterparts but in the end we have to figure our what is Malaysian and what Education Malaysia is all about,” he says.  

Empty promise 

Though most of the sessions at the conference were relevant and interesting, there were a few disappointments as well. 

The luncheon address by newly appointed special envoy for the Higher Education Ministry Datuk Seri Effendi Norwawi was clearly meant to be one of the highlights of the conference.  

Everyone, from the vice chancellors of public universities to the pro vice-chancellors of foreign branch campuses in Malaysia to chief executive officers of the various IPTS, was eager to hear what Effendi had to say in his inaugural public address. 

Effendi was appointed as special envoy, a position with ministerial status, in mid-August this year. After his appointment, Effendi said the Government wanted to set up “fast track” links with top universities via collaborations in national priority areas like biotechnology, agriculture, material science engineering and management to meet the country’s needs. 

He added that he would use his experience in helping to set up the Malaysia University of Science and Technology in Selangor – a collaboration with the renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States – when carrying out his new duties. 

“I believe the way forward is to have collaborations and partnerships with top universities in the world, in fields which are relevant for the country,” he said at the time. 

Those hoping to hear more details of Effendi’s plans for promoting Malaysia as an education hub, and their role in this mission were however sadly disappointed. 

Effendi did not reveal any insight on his role as envoy than has already been published –his job was to attract more foreign collaborations with the world’s top universities. 

“My job is really that of a salesman. I guess you can say I am a very high ranking office boy sent out to promote Malaysia as an education hub,” he said. 

Clearly disappointed, one college CEO said, “Invite a politician to speak and that is what you get ? riddles, and not answers.” 

Perhaps what the conference lacked was a proper forum for discussion. Ideas were tossed around during the sessions but the organisers did not allocate time for workshops, which would have allowed participants to break up into groups and actually map out possible strategies. 

“We have to actually get to the root of certain issues. What do we mean by (a centre for educational) excellence? What do we actually have to do to make this happen? 

“It is no use us coming to these conferences every year just to pat each other on the back to say what a great job we have done,” said Prof Pua Eng-Chong, head of Monash University Malaysia's school of Arts and Sciences. 

To move forward, opines Prof Pua, education institutions must move away from the urge to promote themselves first and not the country.  

Also, although time was allocated at the end of each session for question and answer, often it was not sufficient and had to be limited to one question. 

Perhaps organisers could consider reducing the 30-minute tea breaks between sessions and allowing more time for discussion. 

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