Globalisation and higher education branding at three Western Cape universities in South Africa: A multi-semiotic analysis
This study investigates how the three selected Western Cape Province (WCP) institutions of higher education position their brand imageries and awareness in a localised global way. It explores the branding discourses and strategies used by three WCP universities namely: University of the Western Cape (UWC), University of Cape Town (UCT), and Stellenbosch University (SU). The study applies the qualitative-interpretative approach with multiple methods such as interviews, observation, and document analysis to collect the data. Using the framework of Critical multisemiotic discourse analysis (CMDA), which combines CDA, and multimodality, the researcher analyses how the universities construct and position unique brands to the world and how the students as stakeholders consume these brands. The study also explores how the universities deploy, manipulate, and circulate linguistic, visual and extra-visual semiosis across multiple modalities to create attractive brand imageries. The CMDA framework illuminates the ways in which language and other semiotics are used to construct social reality and ideologies, and negotiate meanings in the universities’ branding practices. The study findings show that the universities are using different types of modalities to relay their institutional brand promotional messages to reach their target audience. These modalities include print media, word of mouth testimonials, alumni, social chatrooms such as Facebook, Twitter, You Tube and semiotic landscape to mention a few. Open days and orientation days are also used to showcase the brands and these events are resemiotised in different media and even posted on the universities websites so as to reach a wide audience from all over the world. In this case, the study demonstrates how the universities are able to promote their brands to their South African communities within their physical vicinity and reach the regional and international community online. This includes showing how some of the modes such as selected architecture and scenery, mission statements, branded goods, logos, historical artefacts together with particular semiotic materials and discourses are recirculated by means of being deterritorialised from the different contexts and reterritorialised into the universityscapes, to accentuate and sell the brands and create attractive brandscapes. Moreover, the study particularly demonstrates that the demise of apartheid and segregated universities in South Africa has prompted the universities to redefine, rebrand and realign themselves to the local, regional and international communities. This has necessitated new repositioning strategies in the post-apartheid South African universities under study. The universities have appropriated materialities of globalisation, commodified heritage and aesthetics of both their academic and social life as branding materials. The universities have adopted the social transformation agenda that tries to eliminate segregation in higher education institution. They all champion inclusive higher education that promotes internationalisation through quality education. Given their historical background, the seemingly effective drive towards transformation through redressing and internationalisation processes still mirrors apartheid inequalities among the HBUs and HWUs. These processes filter into these academic contexts differently. The relentless drive to commercialisation in the market economy from an unequal footing, places the HBUs in a weaker position, where they are always trying to catch up. In addition, the study demonstrates that the universities have adopted the culture of consumerism and the market economy that perpetuates an excessively materialistic and exploitative view of living. The traditional identities of universities, as sites of higher education, have been replaced by corporate-like brand identities, which ensure that they are well known for what they have, they do and lastly what they are. The ideological shift in brand identity is displayed in the imagery of the mission statements, logos, branded goods, buildings, historical artefacts, students, sports and academic resources, all of which are remediated in documentaries, social media, YouTube, television advertisements and other media. This ideological shift and a focus on brand identities, as icons of consumption, have resulted in practices that create unequal subject positions among the universities both at a local and international level, as it widens the competition gap between the HBUs and the HWUs. Through evaluating the students’ brand perceptions and analysis of the brand materials, the study further highlights the undeniable problems in these universities’ branding processes, such as the discrepancy of effective branding trajectories that adequately support the historically disadvantaged institutions to be on the same competitive ground with the historically white universities. The forces of globalisation, technologisation and commodification do not make it easier either as these inherited inequalities on development, cause massive differences in wealth among the universities and citizens accessing resources in these universities. The analysis in this study clearly demonstrates how the universities are able to appropriate multiple semiosis and discourses between the reproduction of the racial social order through subtle traces of resistance or through trying to hold on to the past and branding themselves as inclusive university brands both at a national and a global level. This study brings to the fore that institutional branding is not simply a matter of explicit lexical self-description and attribution, but also pertains to an organisation’s use of semiotic features and patterns, such as particular metaphors or types of modalities. The study therefore contributes to the debates on post-apartheid socio-economic transformation in South African universities, and hints that pretending that the inherited inequality in these universities will correct itself, is futile as it is evident that cultural dialogue and communication based on equity, are necessary in order to avoid widening the gap between the contexts of higher learning in South Africa. Even in light of the latest 'Rhodes Must Fall' and 'Fees Must Fall' campaigns, this study provides information that can positively influence perspectives on access to higher education in South Africa. Against the backdrop of globalisation and internationalisation on these universities, the study recommends that the universities and stakeholders work and rethink new ways of university branding and collaboration that facilitate positive growth. The study thus undoubtedly contributes to the field of language and communication particularly in understanding the concepts of institutional brand identity and consumption as practices, which can be actively changed and negotiated for authentic transformation that is beneficial to both the institution and its stakeholders. This implies that institutional brand identity should not only put emphasis on the business world but on the social world as well how people interpret meanings in their lives. Ultimately, the study calls for an understanding and incorporation of the relatively new concepts of institutional branding and brand identity consumption in modernity practices where communication is characterised by many meaning-making semiotics other than the verbal aspects of human interaction.