Brenda Gourley: The branding evolution of an educational innovator

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The Independent Online

Who would have thought, even 20 years ago, that "brand" would be so important? In a world where there are so many choices, people have a bewildering number of options - a strong brand helps them choose one over another. Brands are judged to be successful because the organisations they project do something that captures people's imagination. The Open University is such an organisation and there can be few universities which engender such real affection in the hearts and minds of so many.

The Open University has grown its student numbers (now standing at 204,000) every single year of its existence, and yet it too has had to grapple with the notion of how to strengthen its brand in the competitive (and international) market place of today.

After much soul-searching and market research, it has re-invigorated its famous logo (a logo that has such high recognition among the general public that it is considered one of the classics of its time) while at the same time remaining true to its essence. To change such a logo would be insane; we have not done so. What we have done is to give it a much more modern look and feel - and I hope the reader (like all those whose opinion we canvassed before we acted) will respond to it.

The new logo or badge, however, is only the symbol of an inward evolution. Since our inception in 1969, The Open University has always been at the forefront of developments in Higher Education, whether it be as the very first "Open Access" exercise (the broadcasting of our educational material on the BBC), or more radically our decision not to set entrance requirements for study.

Our belief that it is exit standards that matter has made it possible for countless people (who would not have been given the opportunity by any other university) to change their lives. This fact will be attested to by anybody who has attended one of our graduation ceremonies and has seen the many students who express real appreciation for the fact that the OU gave them the chance to improve their lives in dramatic ways.

Tom Peters, the management guru, says that "real branding is a great story" and the OU has certainly been one of the great stories of 20th century higher education.

The challenge to the present stewards of the OU is to make sure that The Open University continues to be a great story in the 21st century. With our changing and creative curriculum choices and teaching methods, the incorporation of work-based learning, continuing professional development, e-learning, a virtual meeting place to interact with people from over 100 countries, and a student experience that is constantly adjusted by the feedback that we receive, we believe that we continue to be a great story - and deliver on a great brand.

Brenda Gourley is the Vice-Chancellor The Open University