Brands in HE: a threat or an opportunity?

The role of brands like Dyson, Vogue and Google in higher education is growing. But do they have the potential to truly disrupt the sector?

In a 2018 article, the Silicon-Valley based online magazine TechCrunch proclaimed that it was “only a matter of time” before the US educational rankings were “riddled with global brands”.

Citing partnerships from the likes of Chipotle and Bellevue, Teen Vogue and Parsons – alongside the high-profile start-up Masterclass, offering classes from renowned celebrities – the article suggested brands could, and indeed should, have a bigger role to play in education.

While the rankings remain brand free for now, I’ve seen first-hand how disruptive it can be for a brand to pivot outside of its core competency into the educational space. I’m the marketing director at Toolroom Records, one of the leading brands in electronic music, and four years ago I established the Toolroom Academy. The world’s first music production school delivered by a record label.

Fast-forward to 2021, and we have a thriving online education business with over 300 students per year, we’ve hosted educational conferences all over the world, and have plans to move into higher education in 2022/3.

Our edge in the market is a simple one: if a student wants to learn how to make dance music and work the music industry, they are probably going to want to learn from one of the scene’s leading record labels. Learning directly from the source is always a compelling proposition.

The Faber Academy for aspiring writers. Google Professional Certificates for high-growth digital fields. The Dyson Institute for future engineers. The list goes on, and it’s growing.

Speaking to Nick Isles, CEO of Condé Nast College of Fashion & Design, it’s clear that his institution has a similar focus.

“Our offer is shaped by the fact we are inside the industry,” says Nick. “Our courses are designed to attract and retain those students who want to get in, get on and get up. No other institution can enable students to access the people who lead the fashion and media industries so easily and readily.”

A quick look at the student testimonials on the Condé Nast College website bears this out. What more could a fashion journalist undergraduate ask for, than career advice from the legendary fashion editor Anna Wintour? Only a programme based out of the Condé Nast-owned Vogue magazine could offer a learning experience this unique.

Condé Nast College can offer aspiring fashion hacks access to the legendary Anna Wintour

Brands like Vogue have unrivalled, first-hand knowledge of their fields, and unparalleled access to their industry. For many students, a brand even can represent the endpoint of their career ambition, and so to learn from them directly simply cuts out the middleman. The Faber Academy for aspiring writers. Google Professional Certificates for high-growth digital fields. The Dyson Institute for future engineers. The list goes on, and it’s growing.

But does this trend actually represent a threat to traditional higher education? Well, yes and no.

The easier option for brands looking to move into education remains the short-course market, as opposed to degrees. And for every high-quality, branded programme, there are a hundred unscrupulous, unaccredited online courses with clever funnel marketing tactics and little substance. “Education is a quality ‘high experience product'” asserts Nick Isles. “‘Pile it high, sell it cheap’ cannot work in this sector.”

That said, students in the future will be more and more interested in micro-credentials which allow them to acquire specific knowledge and skills. With companies like Google announcing they will treat their own career certificates as the ‘equivalent of a four-year degree for related roles’, brands offering career-focused and highly on-trend online courses have the potential to disrupt the HE market even further.

For universities looking for exceptional content and connections, easy access to a ready-made online audience and an edge amongst their competitor set, ‘branded education’ could well be a huge opportunity

But beyond this threat, also lies opportunity. It’s not either-or. Universities and brands can partner in increasingly meaningful ways.

Of course, the validating model of HEI and private organisation already exists; indeed, Nick Isles was quick to highlight Condé Nast College’s “supportive and responsive validating partner”, the University of Buckingham.

Beyond this model, smart global brands and universities can align their competencies to create the best of both worlds. Rigorously designed, academic degree programmes, delivered in conjunction with a leading and recognised brand.

For brands looking for diversification in the post-Covid economy, and a new way to connect with their audience on a much deeper level, a move into education can unlock both. For universities looking for exceptional content and connections, easy access to a ready-made online audience and an edge amongst their competitor set, ‘branded education’ could well be a huge opportunity.

According to TechCrunch, in the future “well-structured, branded programs will be superior to an unbranded degree”. In an era with students looking for increasing personalisation, greater value and enhanced vocational relevance, this might well be the case.


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