Belfast Telegraph

Why revamping our finest seat of learning must never be done at the expense of its basic dignity

As a graduate of Queen's, Fionola Meredith is proud of the university, but despairs at its latest cringeworthy rebrand

Queen's University is my alma mater. Nurturing mother: that's the literal translation of the Latin phrase, and the words seem right to me. This was where my mind was fed and nourished with a wealth of ideas, and these were the teachers who showed me how to write, engage in debate and make my own independent judgments.

When I walked through the grand front entrance of the Lanyon building, I would sometimes think of the scholars who had come before me - people like Seamus Heaney, the poet and medievalist Helen Waddell, or physicist John Stewart Bell - and the principles of rigorous intellectual endeavour on which the university was founded.

I was, and still am, fiercely proud to come from Queen's.

But that's precisely why I am so mortified by the university's recent re-branding campaign. I consider it both crass and inane, a triumph of superficial marketing over substance.

Perhaps you have seen the billboards currently on display around the city. "Shaping a better world since 1845": this is the approved new slogan.

To me, it has the ring of a tacky commercial for jeans or beer, and like the previous slogan - the truly cringeworthy "we are exceptional" - it's downright boastful.

Look, I know we're living in 2017, not 1845, and universities must compete in a challenging economic environment. Branding and corporate marketing, effectively selling the institution to the wider world, including potential students, is part of that. All universities do it.

But must it be done at the expense of dignity? Must vacuous marketing-speak trump serious communication about the distinctive ethos, history and values of our beloved university?

For instance, Trinity College Dublin seems to get on just fine without appending a self-vaunting slogan to its website and corporate messages.

Presumably Trinity has sufficient confidence and gravitas, as a venerable institution, not to claim that it has been 'keeping Ireland smart since 1592'.

I have spoken to academics at Queen's who are gnawing their knuckles with embarrassment at the way the university has chosen to advertise itself.

And then there is the exorbitant cost of the rebranding. The bill came to £278,790 - including a consultancy bill of almost £70,000. That earned QUB a rebuke from the Taxpayers' Alliance, which said that "grossly excessive spending like this is an insult".

More to the point, the University and College Union said: "University largesse is rightly under the spotlight at the moment and institutions need to understand that students are more interested in substance than style. New logos and shiny buildings are no match for properly rewarded staff."

Exactly. Students are paying a great deal for their higher education, and their future will be determined, at least in part, by their own efforts and the quality of the teaching they receive. That's the crucial stuff. It is patronising to assume they will be influenced by glib and boastful slogans made up, at great expense, by commercial marketing executives.

Unfortunately, there seems to have been an outbreak of mass stupidity right across the university's corporate communications.

Leafing through "The Graduate", the alumni magazine which periodically falls through my letterbox, I came upon a silly puff-piece entitled "Top 10 things you love about Queen's", which included quotes from intellectual heavyweights like Peter Dickson, "the voice of The X Factor", who said he studied at Queen's because it is "simply one of the best universities in the world". Consider me enlightened.

At the start of this week, the official Queen's Twitter account posted an image of the Lanyon building at night, accompanied by the slogan "The darkest nights produce the brightest stars" and the hashtags #LoveQUB and #MondayMotivation. This is the sort of dopey stuff I'd expect to see from a greeting card manufacturer, not our leading university.

There's no place for anything unpleasant in the shiny world of marketing, which is presumably why the section of the Queen's website providing information about Belfast for prospective students glosses swiftly over our recent history.

"Sadly, no account of Belfast would be complete without mentioning the Troubles," it says. "Conflict raged from 1969 to 1998, but thankfully the city bounced back with a vengeance." So that's alright then. We had a few wee fights but they're over now.

There is something amiss when a university spends almost £300,000 on a corporate makeover - not to mention a 102-page tome of brand guidelines - that leaves its own lecturers cringing.

As a proud alumna of this remarkable institution, I respectfully remind the current leaders of Queen's that a university is a seat of learning, not a glorified shopping centre.

Belfast Telegraph


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