An alternative path to creating a global brand

Increasing numbers of students cross borders and oceans after finding the right tertiary education institution. A select group of institutions across the globe enjoy a clear advantage in attracting these international students. They enjoy a global reputation, in part confirmed by listings in one or more of the major ranking publications.

Non-recognised institutions share a fundamental disadvantage in attracting international students. They are largely unknown within the global market.

In October 2010, I made a presentation, “An Alternative Approach to the Global Ranking Systems”, at a conference of Central Asian academics in Azerbaijan.

I had the temerity to suggest that the chances of Central Asian tertiary institutions gaining identity beyond the region through recognition by one or more of the ranking publications in the foreseeable future was close to nil. My assessment has not materially changed in the interval since 2010.

In April 2015, I had the opportunity to revisit my assessment in preparing for a presentation in Kazakhstan. In the aggregate, while many institutions there offer very high quality instructional programmes, they lack shopper recognition beyond their immediate region.

They do not employ pedigreed faculties regularly producing A list journal citations. Nor do they attract international students or the other accoutrements that stand as qualifying metrics.

I suggest that my dismal outlook is not limited to Central Asia and could be safely generalised to the majority of institutions around the globe.

Central Asian tertiary institutions and many of their global peers generally lack a means of communicating their core qualities to international audiences, meaning they remain largely invisible to students outside their immediate region.

I suggest that showcasing the quality of their institutions rather than faculty and student pedigrees could be more persuasive to value-conscious tertiary education shoppers.

Since undergraduate degrees tend to be increasingly expensive and require a multi-year commitment, nearly all want and need strong proxies of the relative quality of the institutions they seek if they don’t know the institution personally.

Value for money

Shopping for a college or university partially resembles the process followed in the purchase of any other expensive goods or service. Tertiary education shoppers, like their counterparts, seek to compare the value exchange – cost versus value added – among their institutional choices.

Parents and students want to identify institutions that best meet their personal quality, characteristics and amenities criteria within their budget restrictions.

Unlike commercial goods and services shoppers, they are unable to inspect or ‘test drive’ the alternatives, even if near at hand. International tertiary education shoppers must settle for proxies as they attempt to weigh the comparative value of possible institutional choices.

Shoppers frequently solicit assessments from relatives and friends who have attended various institutions. Their vetting becomes increasingly more indirect as they begin to explore the out-of-country alternatives.

Both categories of consumers frequently supplement their search by consulting product or service assessment publications. For example, in the States, appliance, automotive and insurance shoppers often consult the Consumer Reports or similar publications.

Their tertiary education counterparts may refer to one or more of the commercial ranking publications. These publications are quite popular with each new crop of shoppers.

A New York Times article reported that an impressive number of these shoppers rush to consult US News & World Report's America's Best Colleges website when it releases an array of ranking publications each year. The article reported that the Best Colleges website received 10 million visits within three days of its 2007 release, compared to the 500,000 received in an average month.

The mix of metrics employed, and their subsequent weighting leading to a ranking, vary with each publication. Their measures are gathered from two sources – objective third parties and institutional self-reports. While they may suggest the quality of the faculty, student body and institutional services or amenities, they do not provide proxies for the outcomes produced by the mix of ingredients.


I suggest that there are many institutions not meeting the publishers’ criteria that are high performance teaching-learning institutions providing competitive value.

These institutions focus more on the teaching-learning process and less on pedigrees and publications. The problem is that the publishers do not include measures that would reveal the rich mosaic of an institution’s underlying strengths.

The ranking publications provide at best an ill focused snapshot of the breadth and depth of an institution’s underlying quality. Their heavy reliance on a handful of ‘quality’ measures brings to mind a baking parallel. While the finest ingredients may be employed, in the end the cake may not be edible.

Confident teaching-learning institutions, with a cadre of gifted instructors rather than researchers, may want to consider another alternative. I suggest they consider seeking accreditation from a recognised international accreditation organisation.

While these organisations’ websites may not draw the volume of visits that the established for-profit sites do, they provide a path to global recognition. International shoppers do frequent them.

These organisations have non-profit credibility. They represent the tertiary education community rather than for-profit publishers. They base their accreditation decisions on much richer arrays of quantitative and qualitative measures.

Accreditors typically require the applicant institution to provide a broad array of data sustained by narratives that are consistent with the organisation’s values and standards.

Following a review of the institution’s portfolio, an on-site visit seeks to validate the reliability of the data provided. The ranking publications do not employ follow-up visits to validate data provided by the institutions.

Pursuing international accreditation is unquestionably an expensive use of resources. It is not for all institutions. Earning accreditation for a least one of their strong programmes will showcase that programme and by association the entire institution on a global scale.

Earning accreditation has a number of other important benefits that are beyond the limits of this observation, but what it does do is provide an alternative path to building a global brand.

William Patrick Leonard is executive vice-dean at SolBridge International School of Business in Daejeon, Republic of Korea.