You are a Birmingham student, so what are you? (by Dan Ghica)

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You are a Birmingham student, so what are you?
As the status of British universities transmogrifies from cherished and revered quasi-national institutions to mere providers of educational and knowledge-transfer services, and as the vagaries of government subsidies are replaced by the even more erratic capriciousness of the markets, it could be informative to glance across the Atlantic at American (and Canadian) universities, who survived and even thrived in such an environment throughout their existence. If we look carefully among the many striking differences between North American and UK universities, could we perhaps identify some secret ingredients, the magical sauce, that allowed them to prosper in an environment which to us seems, let us admit it, terrifying? Without conducting a proper analysis, for which I am not qualified, and relying entirely on my own personal experiences as someone who graduated from a Canadian university, I will boldly point the finger at the one thing which I believe makes the difference: the inculcation among the students of a genuine and powerful sense of group identity.
Students of Queen’s University, my alma mater, have a name, the Gaels, which is also the nickname of the football team. That Queen’s students casually and proudly identify themselves as “Gaels” may seem slightly ridiculous to our more jaded sensibilities, but such pride is both common and genuine. In the case of Queen’s, the nickname reflects the founding myth of the university, by Scottish Puritans, which pervades its imagery and pageantry, from the architecture of the main buildings down to the bagpipes, ubiquitous at all University events. The football team has its own rather mysterious Gaelic war cry (“Cha Gheill!”) and an equally mysterious anthem, “Oil Thigh” (as in “Oil thigh na Banrighinn a’Banrighinn gu brath!”). Such small mysteries are instrumental in separating the insiders from the outsiders, because in any group worth its salt, a genuine demarcation must exist between “us” and “the others”. Even better, the diffuse “others” can become a more precise “them”, a shared foe to justify and amplify the emotional charge of belonging. For Queen’s, the long-standing rival used to be McGill, the Montreal-based university. The official football match between the two teams carried the brutal monicker “Kill McGill!” and it was a long-standing university tradition. It was the single most important non-academic event of the year. The role of McGill as an arbitrary enemy, meant only to gel the group, was demystified when the rivalry was officially ended in 2000, with one student declaring: “Any incoming class [at Queen’s] will willingly hate any other university we’re told to. None of us hated McGill before we got here.” Nothing begets love like hate, it seems.
The role of the football, or basketball, team in the equational definition of student group identity can hardly be comprehended by those who have not experienced it first hand. Many American universities have football stadia with capacities running in the tens of thousands. Just for a sense of scale, there are 12 collegiate football stadia in the US larger than Wembley. Villa Park would not make the top 50 list by capacity. The coach is routinely among the most generously compensated members of the university staff. This may seem like madness, but it is the kind of madness that the marketplace, in it’s Darwinian thoughtlessness, inexorably lead to. What survives is what works, what confers the competitive advantage. The self-branding of a student as a member of the well defined University tribe involves a pregnant emotional charge. Once you are a Gael or a Cornhusker or a Buckeye you remain so, forever. It becomes embedded in your personal identity to an extent that is difficult for outsiders to appreciate. This is what makes it work, for instance in the role that alumni play. Alumni donations are the financial bedrock on which the prosperity of the American university is built. A Buckeye gives, so their Ohio State alma mater has an endowment of $3.64 billion. A Cornhusker gives, so their Nebraska alma mater has a tidy $1.5 billion endowment. A Gael gives, so their Queen’s alma mater has an endowment of over $1 billion as well. Birmingham University’s endowment is a paltry, by comparison, £0.1 billion (£100 million and change), which is about a quarter that of our Alabama namesakes — Go Blazers! The size of the endowment often runs proportional to the height of the stadium bleachers.
But strong alumni relations are only a symptom of something deeper that is going on. A strong sense of identity is a key ingredient, for most people, of happiness, satisfaction, or a general sense of meaningfulness. Cultivating a sense of identity in their customers is actually how all successful brands thrive, especially in hyper-competitive markets with weakly differentiated products. Would anyone believe that Coca Cola and Pepsi dwarf their competitors because their sugary fizzy beverages are in some objective sense superior? Of course not. Coke and Pepsi are primarily advertising companies, cultivating the illusion of a Coke/Pepsi lifestyle, a shared sense of experience you subscribe to by consuming their product. An excellent product is a prerequisite, certainly, but true success comes from advertising and not from some special qualities of the product itself. In our academic marketplace it is unclear whether a university can thrive by offering “the best educational product”, mainly because it is far from obvious what the best educational product would look like. If we mean whatever makes people the most job-market-ready, then this is already covered quite well by teaching-only universities. Also, we don’t necessarily feel it is right to be bound by the contingencies of the momentarily fashionable. We could mean maximising learning attainment — teaching our students the most that we can teach them. But such an approach may backfire, as maximising learning attainment does not necessarily maximise student satisfaction — in fact a growing body of evidence suggests precisely the opposite. But “maximising student satisfaction” is precisely what inculcating a strong sense of group identity achieves. A self-hating Gael/Buckeye/Cornhusker is a rare beast indeed.
In Britain the sense of academic identity appears to be broader and vaguer. Perhaps the smallest unit that has a clear and distinct identity, outside the always exceptional Oxbridge, is the Russell Group of civic universities. Our universities are proud — and pride is the first sign of a congealed group identity — to offer education on a large-scale (at least by comparison to Oxbridge) in an intellectually stimulating environment energised by the participation of genuine world-class researchers (in contrast to teaching-only universities). This is where we derive our identity from, a sense of intellectual status and achievement grafted upon a sense of moral and civic duty. However, the Birmingham student seems to lack a strong sense of a specific identity as a Birmingham student, which also seems typical of British universities (except Oxbridge, where in fact the sense of affiliation is further devolved, to the college). As the environment in which universities operate tilts more acutely towards being a marketplace, would powerful tribal identities also emerge in the UK, by design or by accident, as they did in American universities? Should British Universities tolerate, cultivate or even inculcate a sense of group identity, as they do on the other side of the Atlantic? Or is tribalism something that should be rejected out of hand as incompatible with what higher education should stand for, no matter what the pay-out? Can we afford to make this a moral stand, if a moral stand it would be at all? The role of the students’ sense of group identity is an essential component in the survival and prosperity of the American university, in a sometimes cutthroat competitive marketplace. For historical reasons a similar phenomenon did not materialise in British, and more general in European, universities, which developed under the active guardianship of the State. But as the protection of the State weakens and the prosperity or even survival of any particular institution can no longer be taken fully for granted we must look at the thriving universities across the Atlantic, if not for immediate example then at least for inspiration and ideas.

7 thoughts on “You are a Birmingham student, so what are you? (by Dan Ghica)”

  1. Some provocative questions here….see those above in bold. Can we learn something about building identity from our colleagues in Canada and the US? Is this the future?

  2. A group identity for students and ability ot work in groups is an increasingly important part of what our students need to be able to do. We should not encourage blind tribalism, but should rather focus a shared identity around what we see as a distinct USP that is delivered (facilitated) by us?

  3. Re Dan’s comment – “As the environment in which universities operate tilts more acutely towards being a marketplace, would powerful tribal identities also emerge in the UK, by design or by accident, as they did in American universities?” I think I agree with Jerry on this – I’m not sure the strong ‘tribalism’ that Dan describes would be a winner in the UK given the cultural differences. Nonetheless – as Dan also says – we should look where we can for inspiration and ideas and developing a stronger shared identify could be of value. The whole purpose of this Conversation is to put forward new ideas – so – Dan and others – what might a unique University of Birmingham identify be and how should we build it?

    1. Precisely this was my point, Kathy, thank you. When I was a student in Canada I was quite put off by the tribalism and I spoke against it — not a formula for popularity. But can a strong yet non-tribal identity be effectively built? Can you support Liverpool FC while admiring Man U as well? I don’t know, I’ll let sociologists, psychologists, and marketing specialists to chip in (if they read this blog).

      Regarding the USP now, lets first honestly admit we don’t have one. I think the Russell Group — as a group — has a magnificent USP (as I point out in my post) around which an identity can be built. A strong group identity of the Russell Group could be nurtured, out of which individual identities of the member institutions can emerge. Because in the UK we are the only institutions who offer large scale education informed by genuine world class research. Over Oxbridge we can construct a claim a moral superiority, and over teaching-only universities an intellectual one.

      1. I think that students often tend to associate themselves with a School, or even a programme before the institution. Feeling part of that community (particularly when students first arrive at university) has been shown to be a significant factor in retention. I like the principles behind our widening horizons modules – these offer us opportunities to support students in developing transferable skills and also for cross-disciplinary learning to happen. These could offer us a way of developing that institutional identity. The idea of community also comes across strongly in the LEAP high impact educational practices (link: https://www.aacu.org/sites/default/files/files/LEAP/HIP_tables.pdf) which I think propose some interesting ideas.

  4. Re. Kathy’s question: about how to develop a stronger shared identity, and what a unique University of Birmingham identity would be like:
    I agree with previous comments that ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ is not helpful. Something that would unite “Birmingham Graduates”, whether they are distance learners or based on campus, would have to be based around common values. Some of us may know what the university motto is, but if we are all striving ‘to achieve great heights’, we would still have to agree on how we go about that. It is harder to know what values the university already embraces, but the following is on our website: “As an institution dedicated to learning, we contribute to the growth and spread of knowledge and ideas which will help to transform the world; working with partners to take on the big questions, find and implement solutions and make a difference locally, nationally and globally. This purposeful, pragmatic and pioneering approach, focused on the common good, has enabled us to redefine the civic university, becoming the standard against which others are measured.” In the comments about the values listed (Excellence, Leadership, Pioneering Spirit, Purposefulness, and Pragmatism), it says “we support others’ success”. I agree that cooperation is very important and so are inclusivity and integrity. I think we all need to think about what we mean by ‘the common good’ and ‘making a difference’ in our local contexts. The curriculum of the future needs to be based on values that we all agree on and that we are aware of, whether we are a student being ‘recruited’ to the university or a staff member of many years- that way we could grow and adapt to the demands of our (political and social) environment without losing our strong sense of UoB identity.

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