In the past twenty years, higher education has become a hyper-competitive industry in the context of globalization. Universities, particularly the world's most reputable universities, have entered an age when multiple resources are not only allocated within strict national boundaries, but also in a global marketplace. Branding, originally a concept from the management field, has been introduced to the world of higher education, as universities seek to retain a comparative advantage in this environment of global competition. However, very few studies have addressed the emerging trend of branding in the higher education sector. My dissertation research explores this trend by examining the interplay between two of the significant players in the game of the global iconic brand campaign: a prestigious U.S. research university (UCLA) and an important group of its prospective international students – the Chinese elite-singletons. It explores the nature of university branding in interacting layers through a deep analysis of the motivations, process, and bidirectional impact of seeking a global iconic brand on the part of both parties.
A mixed-methods approach in a single case study was applied to address the research topic, including both quantitative methods and qualitative methods. Data were collected in China and at UCLA over a three-year period between 2012 to 2014. Surveys and interviews were conducted with Chinese elite-singletons in China, while document analysis, interviews and participant observation were conducted at UCLA.
This empirical research yielded three main research findings and their associated implications. (1) The rise of university branding was a result of supply and demand in the higher education sector, which was largely influenced by neoliberalism and globalization. Branding at UCLA was an organizational response to the changing socioeconomic environment and was encouraged by strong demand from the international student market, particularly from China. (2) University branding, derived from the field of management and applied in the world of education, is hybrid in nature, which has presented administrative challenges for universities, which typically tend to be loosely coupled organizations. The conflict and compromise apparent in the branding process at UCLA has provided a compelling example of this phenomenon. (3) University branding had a bidirectional impact on both the institution’s global student recruitment efforts and the institution itself. The evaluation of UCLA brand equity showed a match and mismatch between the institution and its prospective international students in their common goal of pursuing preeminence through association with a global iconic brand. It also vividly illustrated the essential importance of addressing social and cultural differences in branding for the global higher education market.
Indeed, although my research findings are framed in large part from the institutional perspective, this is not to downplay the critical importance of the Chinese elite-singletons who were also the subjects of this study. The data this project assembled shows that they are a truly unique group among international students and their impact on the university is unique. They are affluent, high-achieving students who not only contribute to university finances, but also to the intellectual and cultural diversity on campus. As a group, they have a highly cohesive and less idiosyncratic set of preferences with regard to what they consider important in a university. And in terms of numbers, they dominate the international student population at UCLA. Therefore, any university branding efforts would do well to be attentive to the particular priorities of this group, as both institution and students seek to reach their ideal and global iconic brand.