The universities co-opting activism

Liam Donohoe questions the latest university marketing strategy.

There’s something utterly surreal about Monash University’s latest effort to win students to their campus: a minute-long YouTube clip with a name as self-defeating as its glossy production: ‘Change It’. Vignettes of protesters and radicals from all loci of the Anarchist-Stalinist spectrum jump into each other with a freneticism that would humble Michael Bay. Not to be outdone, the coda of the montage—to enrol at Monash and help fix this godforsaken neo-liberal hellhole—faithfully adheres to Bay’s formula of ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’.

One could not imagine university marketing departments playing up their progressive credentials during other periods of heightened radicalism. A campaign incorporating the imagery of the Anti-Vietnam War movement, Indigenous rights activists, and drug-addled Hippies of the 1960s, for instance, would have been untenable at a time when this paper would stir controversy for even touching on those themes. That is, of course, if there was a marketing department in the 1960s.

Prior to the expansion of tertiary education around the mid-1960s, the ivory tower marketed more subtly through reputation and inculcation in elite networks and carefully manicuring their alumni through scholarships and strong ties to private schools. But while the first signs of corporate marketing strategies were noticed decades ago, the total emulation of American universities’ methods—replete with animal spirits—is a more recent phenomenon.   

USyd’s marketing outlay reflects broader trends within Australian universities, with three-fold increases like the one USyd saw from 2009 to 2016 not uncommon. Some suggest the Gillard government’s changes to funding arrangements in 2012 motivated this increase. Prior to the change, the government would only provide enough funding to a university to sustain a predetermined number of students in each degree. By removing this effective ‘cap’, that policy expanded the number of students that could go to university. At the same time, cost pressures arising from cuts to the Federal government’s funding of higher education decreased universities’ main source of revenue, leaving increased intakes, especially of international students, one of the few ways to increase revenue. It is no coincidence that the largest year-on-year increase in the marketing budget occurred after the Abbott government declared its intention to deregulate.

When each marginal student enhances profitability, universities have an incentive to bring them on board. When each university has an incentive to bring them on board, competition results. And in order to win that competition, universities look to pitch themselves in all manner of ways to all manner of students. The ‘Change It’ campaign, for instance, was thought up by a marketing firm called Y&RANZ.

For precisely this reason, Monash’s most recent campaign is merely the exemplar in its field, not a lone example. Closer to home, the University of Sydney has used marketing as an opportunity to virtue signal for years now. The “INSPIRED” campaign, launched in 2013, paraded alumnus famous for their socially conscious contributions to science, law, and politics in an effort to increase donations. It was a creation of ATMC, formerly Alexander Thomas Media Co. The more recent ‘Unlearn’ campaign, a product of Sydney advertising firm The Monkeys, uses images of same-sex couples interloping and cannabis leaves to punctuate their invocation to “reimagine the world”. Though it is more recent, that campaign has already accomplished the seemingly impossible feat of being found racist by the courts and evoking the wrath of conservative rags like Quadrant, The Daily Telegraph, and the USyd Conservative Club’s ‘The Sydney Tory’. Many cynics even view USyd’s connections with ostensibly progressive organisations like ‘Pride in Diversity’ and campaigns like ‘Racism. It Stops With Me’ as part of this trend.

These changes in outwards appearances may appear well-intentioned. Monash’s Chief Marketing Officer told various news outlets that through the campaign the university is “acknowledging [they] have a role to play in solutions”, coated in language from the activist vernacular. And there’s no doubt the university is committed to spreading that message: a quick Google search of the campaign reveals three identical articles from three different websites, and many more that essentially paraphrase. One is left to wonder whether these were based on a Reuters wire, or whether they represent another red line in the marketing budget.

But the more progressive universities make themselves out to be, the more intense the disdain of those attempting to ‘Change It’. While universities have a reputation for being progressive spaces, in recent years that reputation has been perpetuated solely by student activists. There is a certain moral bankruptcy in implying a commitment to social justice while at once responding reluctantly to progressive agitation. Given USyd’s own failure to publicly support same-sex marriage, it seems they have much to learn from their own marketing materials. Given Monash’s own habit of honouring hawkish interventionists like Robert Menzies, perhaps they should consider ways of being more sensitive to the refugees whose suffering they are so willing to use as marketing fodder. And given USyd’s meaningless response to sexual assault issues in colleges, including the suppression of the most damaging Broderick Review, even claims to support student safety seem questionable.

This phenomenon also has the consequence of ‘window dressing’ the university, erasing the legitimate concerns raised by oppressed groups on campus and in the process winning progressive social capital. This social capital not only converts to financial capital via alumni support and marginally more student enrolments, but also makes the prospect of reforming universities much harder. Students are less likely to engage in activism when they’ve been led to believe there’s nothing wrong in the first place. Worse yet, the sense that the university is guided by some kind of progressivism makes protesters on Eastern Avenue seem animated by a puritanical contrarianism, as if they are making unreasonable demands of a compassionate force doing their best. This is especially impactful at a time when the right gains support by labelling activists as ‘snowflakes’ with victim complexes.

But while this window dressing is bad enough, it is made all the worse by the fact that it is premised on a lie. The stubbornness of USyd in response to the demands of Sydney College of the Arts students in 2016, the ferocity of Monash’s ongoing cuts to their Arts faculty, and the reluctance of Vice-Chancellors to publicly defend free, or at the very least, affordable education demonstrates that, in at least these respects, students cannot ‘change it’. Or, perhaps more accurately given the successful legacy of student activism, that these universities will not help students change it. In fact, it almost seems as if consumer rights impute an obligation to disclaim: “Monash University gives no refunds in the event one’s labour does not succeed in changing us.”

So, while those outside of tertiary institutions may view these campaigns through rose tinted frames, not least the nascent anarchist high school grads who naively enrol in their preferred purveyor of cultural Marxism, it seems that now more than ever, universities should heed Monash’s dictum. Their quest to change the world, then, should begin at their own doorstep.