Shopping for Higher Education


By Leslie Chin-Ting

Where do you go to school, and why did you choose the school that you went to? Think back to when you were in grade 12 thinking about going to university and what program you wanted to go into, what were some of the things that influenced your decision to go to a particular institution? The issue that I will be looking at in higher education is branding of education, and education as a business.

Higher education was once thought of as somewhere where you could explore thinking; you could reach and explore higher levels of thinking and reasoning. It was seen as a place “that nurtured ideas and innovations, built the morals of its students, and contributed to democracy through producing political and social leaders” (Natale & Doran, 2012. p. 188). In recent years, however, the way higher education is viewed has changed; universities and colleges are now seen in terms of brands; competing business that are there to provide services to their shareholders (parents and students).

The issue: The changing focus of higher education

Higher Education is still about the learning and developing a higher level of reasoning and thinking – or  is it moving more towards who has the most graduates, who can produce the most workers, and reputation? Higher education institutes are moving away from the notion of grassroots ideas, innovation, and building free thinking individuals who are looking to make a change in our democracy. Rather, because of the financial and societal demands, institutions are shifting towards more of a business model. In this sense, higher education views students as “revenue streams and colleges to businesses” (Natale & Doran, 2012. p. 187). Institutions are constantly in competition with other institutions to develop their “brand” to try and lure unsuspecting high schoolers; this begs to question what are we really paying for, for education?

Higher education in this day and age is seen as the be all, end all; there is really no question on whether or not we should continue our education after high school, but rather which one should we go to. Society has made it so that post secondary is almost mandatory. That is why I think that this issue is something that should be addressed. It should be addressed because as a society the majority of us just accept the costs and demands that post secondary education puts on us without another thought because it is just something that we have to do because if we don’t we won’t get the jobs in the end (that is, if the degree we did has any value to employers). We do not question the institutions and just accept the rhetoric that they are telling us; the hidden agendas that they are imposing on us. We need to address this issue because I think that we really need to question the developing motives of higher education institutions.

Arguments that are against higher education as a business and brand generate:

– Does this take away from learning and the exploration of higher thinking that higher education once embodied and is rather now focusing on how and what can we do to attract the most “customers” to our institution?

– Education becoming too commercialized

– More universities come to depend on research funding from businesses, and this compels more researchers to not deviate in their findings from the interests of those who fund them

– Becoming training centers for industry; training workers that fit into the frame works of industries. There is now so much focus on workplace skills, that there is little value to knowing anything that cannot help students become more ‘‘marketable’’ in the workforce

– Perpetuates the hierarchy of schools and does not allow for other institutions to break into the “market of education”

– Devalues your degree

– Creates more part time or contract positions for faculty members and as a result it could create a sense of fear or compliance with staff because they feel as though they have to concede to the agenda and wishes of the institution

Arguments that are for higher education as a business and brand generate:

– Creates competition between institutions and as a result more innovation within schools so that they can keep up with or surpass other institutions

– With outside financial intervention it allows more people to have access to higher education because it would make tuition cheaper

– Creates awareness of post secondary institutions

Possible solutions:

– Have more transparent processes

– Consultation committees that involve students and faculty, and not just the university bureaucracy

– Have a cap on who and how much can invest in the university

– Have firm rules in terms of the participation in school matters that investors can have

Higher education as a business is a matter of increasing concern because of the influential business model that is changing how and what we are learning.


Black, J. (2008). The branding of higher education. Retrieved from

Brown, R., & Carasso, H. (2013). Everything for sale? The marketisation of UK higher education.  New York, NY: Taylor & Francis Group.

Gupta, M. & Singh, P. B. (2010). Marketing and branding higher education: Issues and challenges. Review of Business Research, 10(1), 46-53.

Lancendorfer, K. M. (2007). The branding of higher education: The great awakening in the hallowed halls of academia. American Academy of Advertising Conference Proceedings, pp. 242-242.

Natale, S. M., & Doran, C. (2012). Marketization of education: An ethical dilemma. Journal of Business Ethics, 105(2), 187-196.

Waeraas, A., & Solbakk, M. (2009). Defining the essence of a university: lessons from higher education branding. Higher Education, 57(4), 449-462.


3 thoughts on “Shopping for Higher Education

  1. In your invitation to remember how I decided on which institution to apply to and attend, I recall a time when university websites were just starting, and one still requested and was mailed (with a stamp) packages of information about courses and application forms. Application forms were sent back by mail. Later on in undergrad, I was cleaning out a filing drawer in our student office full of posters from graduate schools advertising their programs; some where even still being sent and that was only a decade ago.

    Individuals I knew mostly applied to the university nearby, the one their parents/cousins etc went to, or one that had a specific program. With far more advertising on billboards and buses/subways as well as the ease of looking up a university anywhere and checking one more box on the ontario-wide application system, it can be tempting to try to draw students.

    Your list of pros and cons contains a breadth of potential outcomes. I am curious how many of them are necessitated by or inherent, and which may occur simply due to a particular approach?

  2. Hi Leslie. I really enjoyed your blog’s insight and discussion of education as branding and as a business. Thank you for bringing forth such an interesting critical issue, a topic I am also very passionate about.
    I agree with your comment that higher education has increasingly transitioned towards branding, providing education as a service for the student market. In their race to attract the best potential students possible, schools have turned towards marketing their own degrees. In an attempt to market and outbid other schools, institutions target students by attempting to sell their prestige, name heritage, and lifestyle attached to their name and school, instead of focusing on the actual education component. When I think back to my own experience shopping for education, I specifically remember associating a perceived rank to each school before I had even visited any campuses. For example, Western University markets their school as the Ivy League school of the North, implying they are a prestigious and exclusive school that not all students can attend. Only the students with high marks and big wallets can attend, associating their degrees to other distinguished schools like Stanford, Harvard and Columbia.
    Despite the need to attract students in order to pay operational costs, the brandification of education is concerning. What becomes problematic is the invasion of consumerism imbedded in school institutions, the same educational system that is responsible for molding, guiding and shaping society’s next generation of citizens. As Norris (2005) states, “consumerism, however, undermines the critical task of education, reducing it to a process by which students become increasingly acquisitive yet decreasingly inquisitive” (p78). Students should not base their decision of investing in an educational institution upon the perceived or marketed associations of the school’s brand, but the actual quality of education or associated programs, resources, and professors available.
    In response to the main issue of education as a business, some argue that the business model advocates towards post-secondary institutions becoming more accountable to budgets. Students would also pursue vocational training and practical knowledge to fulfill workplace-required jobs.
    Despite the advantages, I am critical of the business model of education which treats education as a transaction. Because education is expensive, society thus demands a return on investment for educating students, positioning students as the commodity in this exchange. I criticize this view because it forgets that schooling is a moral environment and we should not treat students as a commodity in the transaction. This dehumanizes students by taking away their freedom to choose their own careers. We need to recognize students are unique human individuals and should have a choice in what they go to school to become and where to work.
    In conclusion, I think you did a great job in representing both positions of the education as business argument. To respond to the dilemma of education as a business, I believe a general collective consensus on the ‘aim of education’ needs to be established in today’s society. If the aim of education is to dictate what students will be based on the needs of the society and economy, then a business model would be effective. But if the aim of education is to create and promote critically thinking and communicating students who have the liberty to pursue their individual education and research interests, then perhaps a balance of the accountable business system, but with more concern and societal involvement needs to be established in the higher educational system.

    Norris, T. “Re-thinking Re-producing Consumption: Hannah Arendt, Paulo Freire and the Pedagogy of Possession.” Philosophical Studies in Education Yearbook, 2005, 77-90.

  3. Thinking back, sadly to over 20 years ago, when I was applying to universities, I wanted to study botany. From what I can recall, my school choices were based on being close to home, the prestige of the university and schools which I was familiar with. I got into Brock which was the last reason from the prior list; I had visited Brock while I was in a swim meet and liked the campus and the small size of the school. Aside from the fact that I did not get any direction from my teachers on my choices, prestige was also a selling feature, even back then! It was common knowledge that Queens, Western and U of T were the top schools and had the best reputation. So have things really changed? Are universities more business oriented now than before? It doesn’t seem like it. I think there have been so many budget cuts from the federal government (Shanahan & Jones, 2013), that it has forced schools to rely more heavily on marketing in order to bring in business to survive and stay competitive. Unfortunately these budget restraints have been transferred down to the student.

    As I get older, my glasses change from rose to clear, and sadly, they are probably 99% clear now. Whether you look at health care, government, non-profit etc. it does not matter, these are all business – they revolve around numbers and money. Drugs are created and marketed to make money, programs are created to increase numbers, budgets and corners are cut to survive. Being in the world of work, one comes to have firsthand insight into this glaring reality. Although it is sad to accept, yes, schools are in the same boat- they are businesses as well. Bottom line, money is what pays the bills; acquiring knowledge, “innovation, and building free thinking individuals who are looking to make a change in our democracy” (Chin-Ting, 2014) are along for the ride. This is reality – is it a bad thing? Does it mean that education is compromised because of the fact that schools are a business? I don’t believe that my undergrad degree was seen in a lesser light because it was from Brock rather than Queens, Western or U of T.

    It would be interesting to explore what high school students think about university. Do they really view it as a place for higher order thinking? I remember being appalled at my first day in residence when students were picking their course schedules based on whether they could sleep in or not. I don’t know if things have changed now but it would be interesting to survey what high school students think of university, why they are going and what they would use it for.
    I am not sure I viewed university in this light either. I knew it was the next step I had to take towards securing a good job. Again this was my thinking over 20 years ago. Again, this has not changed. And now, having returned to do my Masters, my reasoning for doing so is not so different. I have returned to stay competitive in the workplace, to have job security and to be marketable should I become unemployed. Reality is that it is competitive out there. Education is a ticket. I do not hold the opinion that I am smarter because I will have a Masters or that I am smarter than someone will less education. What I do know is that more education will make me more marketable. Maybe when I win the lottery and I don’t need money to survive, I can return to school for the simple pleasure of enlightening myself.

    Chin-Ting, L (2014). Blog: Shopping for Higher Education.

    Shanahan, T., & Jones, G. A. (2007). Shifting roles and approaches: Government coordination of postsecondary education in Canada from 1995 to 2006. Higher Education Research and Development, 26(1) 31-43.

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