Column

THE BRAND CALLED ‘U’

Hello, students, and welcome to the business of enrolment management

ANN DOWSETT JOHNSTON June 2 2003
Column

THE BRAND CALLED ‘U’

Hello, students, and welcome to the business of enrolment management

ANN DOWSETT JOHNSTON June 2 2003

THE BRAND CALLED ‘U’

Column

Hello, students, and welcome to the business of enrolment management

ANN DOWSETT JOHNSTON

LIKE MOST MOTHERS, I could do a time-line of my son’s life as defined by his collectibles—the stuff that he and his gang have prized, and hoarded, from pre-school on up. The quirky and the not-so-quirky: from mini-mountains of Lego and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, through to baseball cards and POGS, and on to mp3s.

And now they’re at it again—only this time, the hot new thing is a university offer. Ask any smart teenager in my neck of the woods, and they can rhyme off their personalized list—six, seven, eight universities, all snug in their hip pocket. Just like those baseball cards: collect one, collect them all!

In a matter of weeks, this will all be over as, one by one, each teenager hits the deadline for choosing their number 1 school. But right now, they’re huddled together, shuffling their options—the prized and the not-so-prized—savouring the moment. And who can blame them? For most, this was the year that fun forgot. A nail-biter of a year, with the largest class in Canadian history heading to university. A year when even the brightest among them cut back on their extracurriculars so they could focus on marks.

Take Liam Gerussi, a talented drama major in the elite Claude Watson Arts program at Toronto’s Earl Haig Secondary School. This year, Gerussi, who has a 94-per-cent average, dropped virtually everything but his studies. As far as he was concerned, his job was to keep his grades high and find a university he loved. Like many, he hedged his bets, applying far and wide. Who said yes? King’s, Queen’s, McGill, Concordia, Ottawa and Carleton. The wild card? The Ivy League’s Brown University, which upped the ante with a significant scholarship and financial aid package.

Three weeks ago, Gerussi—who has visited every university on his Canadian list but Queen’s—decided to check out his American option. He was smitten: “I got a great vibe from the campus. The whole place was the epitome of a liberal arts institution.” So, is he off to Brown? He hesitates. “ I felt com-

fortable at all the Canadian universities. I could see myself perhaps at McGill. But I’m not sure anything here really grabs me.”

And right now, grabbing Liam Gerussi— and other smart kids like him—is what it’s all about. With so many offers in play, even the most seasoned registrars are uncertain as to what will happen by mid-June. Will they get just the right students, in just the right numbers? It’s impossible to predict.

Welcome to the thorny business of enrolment management: part art, part science. Not so long ago, most Canadian universities were passive takers of students. All Canadian universities were generally equal, and generally excellent, right? (Actually, wrong.) Then came the huge budget cuts of the 1990s: millions were whipped out of higher education. Confronted by an over-crowded, cash-strapped system—and rising tuition— both students and their well-educated parents started to become much more savvy and discriminating in university choice.

Smart universities are now devoting considerable energy to underscoring their strengths, and devoting more attention to

students’ needs. Grabbing the likes of Liam Gerussi is now a competitive business; grabbing brilliant faculty in a hot global market is even tougher. And what both groups are looking for is a promise of engagement and excitement—plus some key deliverables.

Which is why branding—or in many cases re-branding—has gone from being a dirty word to the word of the moment. A strong brand has a Velcro effect, and it’s what many universities now know they’re missing. As it stands, only a handful of Canadian universities can boast a well recognized brand. Waterloo is a perfect example, broadly perceived as an innovative leader in co-op and a hothouse of computer wizardry. McGill too: a university with huge international cachet.

Recendy, the research-intensive University of Ottawa commissioned a survey by IpsosReid and confirmed its own suspicions: its middling reputation lags far behind its performance. Among high school students in Ontario and Quebec, only one in 20 was very familiar with the place. Last week, Ottawa launched the first stage of a major branding campaign, repositioning itself as “Canada’s university,” a national, bilingual institution offering unique opportunities. Bravo to them: they have begun to articulate a clear vision and direction. Details to follow. And as we all know, God is in the details.

Similarly, Dalhousie is busy working on its own intensive re-branding exercise, aimed largely at future recruitment. “It’s not a case of turning a pig’s ear into a silk purse,” says president Tom Través, “but sharpening the understanding of what we do—and how well we do it. A brand is a promise aimed at a targeted audience, and you have to live that promise.” In Dal’s case, living the promise will begin with a considerable investment in enhancing a broad range of student services in the near future—which is smart.

Smart too is McGill’s recent purchase of a 16-storey hotel, one that will be transformed into a 650-bed residence this fall. Smart because it eliminates the first-year residence lottery that has cost McGill many gifted students in recent years. Smart because it proves the university is listening to those bright students in my neck of the woods. The ones with the offers in their pockets, who want nothing more than the promise of engagement—to be grabbed by the right school. Í71

Ann Dowsett Johnston edits Maclean’s Guide to Canadian Universities. response@macleans.ca