What’s in a name?
Here’s a curiosity: a British university has just changed its name, from (formerly) the University of Teesside to (now) Teesside University. Without any disrespect to the institution in question, which has a number of successes to celebrate, this isn’t much of a name change, and I’m not sure what it is supposed to suggest to its stakeholders. The press release merely tells us that the name change (with a new logo) has given the university the opportunity to remind the world about its recent successes.
If you accept that universities, like many other organisations, need to market themselves to the wider world, in order to recruit students, create business links, encourage research interests, and so forth, then the name can certainly play a role. Studies in the UK in the 1990s revealed, for example, that universities named after cities (like Manchester, Nottingham, Glasgow, etc) tended to have a marketing advantage over those named after a district or region (like East Anglia, Staffordshire, Central England, etc). On that basis alone, Teesside University might have taken a bigger leap in its recent change. Of course elsewhere in the world, some of the most prestigious institutions are called after neither cities nor regions, but people – such as Harvard and Yale universities. There are examples of this in the UK (e,g, Heriot-Watt University, Liverpool John Moores University), but they don’t suggest that this particular approach to naming has yet broken through on this side of the Atlantic.
The question of the name was a very important one for Dublin City University when it acquired university status in 1989. Before then the institution was called the ‘National Institute for Higher Education’. Every so often we now ask ourselves whether the name ‘Dublin City University’ correctly communicates what we are – a focused research driven university, with innovative teaching programmes and close links with industry and our neighbouring district and region. Frankly, we’re not sure, but the name DCU has become so familiar in Ireland that it would make little sense to change it.
In any case, in a recent survey of students in some countries where Irish universities are keen to recruit students, respondents stated that they knew about Dublin City University more than about any other Irish institution. Even though I am hugely proud of DCU and of our achievements, I do confess I find it hard to know how the survey came up with this result. And it may well be that the name sounds ‘familiar’ to those who, frankly, don’t know about any Irish universities at all – so they go for it in the survey. So maybe we are gaining something from our name.
Overall, all universities will need to become better at marketing, and at understanding what marketing does for them. Above all, we need to be professional about it, and to ensure that we have genuine marketing experts on our staff or advising us so that we can communicate what we do more effectively to our stakeholders. Doing so neither cheapens us nor devalues the activities we undertake; it makes them more widely accessible, which is always good.
Anyway, I wish Teesside University well, and look forward to find out over time what their name change has done for them.