Author(s): Daniela Matić
Subject(s): Social Sciences, Education, Higher Education
Published by: Filološki fakultet, Nikšić
Keywords: critical discourse analysis; marketization; higher education; university prospectuses; promotional discourse

Summary/Abstract: In this paper, we wanted to establish whether the higher education discourse in Croatia has shifted from the practice of self-presenting and foregrounding the quality of universities and positioning them within society, to new discursive practices with language devices used in marketing or advertising industries targeted at prospective students, with a view of persuading them to buy a certain service. As stated in Osman, the role of a university used to be educating and forming knowledgeable people and thinkers who would help change the world. However, this role started to change towards the end of the 20th century, especially in Western countries, as their governments gradually reduced financing for public universities, which forced these institutions to find other sources of income. Therefore, a different approach toward prospective students was required. Marketization as a social phenomenon is defined as a process of societal transformation in which social structures and values act and adapt according to rules of the market, of its principles and of the interest groups who benefit from such constellation (Peračković 983). It was Norman Fairclough (1992; 1993) who noticed and critically analyzed the phenomenon of marketization in the higher education discourse of the United Kingdom, which emerged following the introduction of neoliberal economic measures in the 1980s. Ever since, the institutional discourse has been colonized by a promotional discourse, complemented by visual devices (Fairclough 1993, 156). As a result, this phenomenon has produced a host of hybrid, interdiscursive discourses. University prospectuses have been permeated with instances of promotional discourse, which had already entered the public service order of discourse. The goals may be to attract students, both domestic and foreign, and compete for grants and international projects, which could ensure an inflow of funds. This can eventually result in better positioning in various international ranking lists which measure the quality of universities. There were other authors (Askehave; Lowrie and Willmott; Mautner; Mayr 2008b; Ng; Osman; Teo; Teo and Ren) who noticed similar changes in the order of higher education discourse in their respective countries, which also implemented neoliberal policies. These new approaches to discursive self-presentation bore a striking resemblance to those of companies which enter a market, as higher education institutions started printing more promotional material which replaced informational content. The promotional discourse also “colonized” university websites, which offer various a means of multimodal communication (Zhang; Hoang and Rojas-Lizana; Zhang and O'Halloran). The purpose of our analysis, therefore, was to establish whether Croatian higher education discourse practices shifted toward a higher persuasiveness of utterances in response to changing social circumstances; that is, whether marketization effects are traceable in the institutional order of discourse. Given the increasing number of higher education institutions and the competition between them, we hypothesized that some elements of persuasive discourse must have entered the self-presentation texts aimed at prospective students. Following the examples of the abovementioned authors, as a source of data we used university prospectuses printed over a ten-year period (2004-2015) at the University of Split and studied the diachronic change in the discursive practices of printed materials. In order to analyze the collected data, we applied the instruments of critical discourse analysis, which sees language as a social practice within a social and historical context; therefore, this practice can be fully comprehended only if observed within this context. The main research questions of this paper were as follows: 1) What are the verbal and visual language devices that the higher education institution used in its self-presentation?; 2) To what extent are these devices based on promotional discursive practices, i.e., are we witnessing the marketization of higher education discourse?; 3) What diachronic changes have occurred in discursive practice?; 4) How does the university in question established its relationship with users and gain market value?; and 5) Does the order of traditional higher education discourse change with the influx of new, promotional discursive strategies or not? The starting point was the collected university prospectuses which we scrutinized in search of their common features in textual organization and the semiotic devices used. The meaning is constituted as a synthesis of various semiotic meanings, in this case both verbal and visual, which create a unique pragmatic act with a perlocutionary goal of attracting students to the university. This pragmatic act consists mainly of assertive speech acts used to inform students, but also to persuade them to enroll at the University of Split. We compared and contrasted not only the language devices used in providing candidates with information about the courses and programmes offered, the goals and relations with students, but also the visual devices accompanying the texts. The prospectuses were bimodal, so sometimes verbal and sometimes visual component acted as the most important communication channel with the reader. We looked for the lexical and syntactic elements used with the purpose of informing and persuading prospective students, and these were as follows: noun phrases and adjectives which positively describe the institution; nominalization; direct address (synthetic personalization) through imperatives, personal pronouns such as “we” and T-V distinction; the personalization of the institution (with the exclusive “we”); the use of emotive and evaluative adjectives and adverbs and their superlatives; impersonal and passive forms; deontic modality; verbs which belong to the commercial order of discourse and express or connote orientation toward global trade or markets; and the degree of formality. We also included rhetorical devices such as citing statistical data, external sources, various rankings, detailed descriptions, positive reviews, awards, and support from respected figures or organizations, which were all used as persuasion devices, but also expressions which bring generality and universality. We looked for associative language devices (Perloff), used to add sentimental value, pleasure, impressions of a happy and healthy life, and a sense of belonging to the studies the university offers, as well as other positively marked emotional messages which could affect candidates’ attitudes and their subsequent decisions. Finally, we analyzed the visuals in the prospectuses: the photographs and their content, i.e. the photographed people, objects and the relationship between the photographer and the reader, as well as arrangement of the photographs and the text. Upon reading all the material, it became evident that the prospectuses from 2004 up to 2013 differed only in their information content and the number of pages, so we analyzed the version that was richest in information, the one prepared for the 2012/13 academic year. This prospectus (278 pages) generally used strategies of informing, with only seven instances of promotional discourse in relation to studies at the university. The course descriptions were written in a formal register achieved through impersonal and passive structures, as well as nominalized structures. Modal verbs were rarely used, except in some sentences with expressions of deontic modality, where students’ duties and obligations were listed. The prospectus offered information on a host of courses, but the authors did not overtly try to persuade students into “buying” any service. The 2014/15 prospectus, however, revealed a new identity and the place that universities could take in society: it had a very low information content in its 46 pages, but also seven instances of promotional discourse in the very short course descriptions. These texts consisted of assertive speech acts in which passive and impersonal structures were predominant, but unlike the 2012/13 prospectus, this one contained no instances of deontic modality, which means that no requirements were explicitly imposed on students. The lexis was formal, and so was the representation of the faculties and departments, usually referred to in depersonalized terms as “the Faculty” or “the Department”. However, the instances of promotional discourse contained verbs and nouns which belong to the commercial order of discourse, as well as interdiscursive examples of evaluative and emotive adjectives and their superlatives, of the type usually found in promotional materials and tourist guides. There were instances of external rankings that were supposed to corroborate the subjective statements on the University’s excellence, quality, attractiveness and the interesting nature of their courses. Here, the city of Split was branded as a very desirable tourist destination and sports city. Its tourist activities and the successful sports careers of certain figures were foregrounded, even though these were not closely related to studying at the University. On the other hand, Split was not represented as a centre of science or art with a complex history and rich cultural legacy, there was no mention of successful and renowned scientists or artists, from the past or present time, whose accomplishments could also contribute to creating the public image of the city and its university. Other promotional discourse strategies included the use of indefinite and subjective appraisals of the achievements at some departments and faculties underscoring their uniqueness, which were never further elaborated on, and then orientation toward foreign markets, good job opportunities and professional advancement, but without any specific detail. This prospectus attracts the attention of its readers by adapting the advertising, promotional discourse of the tourist industry in order to “sell” the whole package, the University and the city and all the amenities it offers, new experiences, its pleasant climate, its beaches, and so on. Academic merits are, however, backgrounded. In terms of the visual dimension of the two prospectuses, the 2012/13 had photographs which showed buildings, laboratories and classrooms with students studying, listening to teachers; only very rarely did they direct their gaze toward the camera. The camera just documented certain activities in the manner of a “detached observer”, neutrally and disinterestedly, which corresponds to the ideational function of discourse/semiosis. The photographs did not enhance the informational content and no link between the visual content and the readers was established. Though the number of pages in prospectuses increased over the years, the number of photographs evidently shrank compared to the number of pages. This shows that the verbal component took precedence over the visual component and the derived semiotic meaning suggested that the University of Split in 2012/13 offered opportunities for studying and work, but not much more than that. The approach toward the visual representation changed considerably in the prospectus which followed. Unlike the 2012/13 prospectus photographs, the photographs in the 2014/15 spread over two pages, leaving very little room for course descriptions. The prospectus first introduced the city of Split and situated the University within it. The photographs featured bright colours and supported the text with motifs that are typical of tourist materials: historical monuments, beaches, people strolling around, sitting and enjoying the sun, presenting and selling the way of life with a view of creating an image of a city which is a good place not only for studying, but also for living. The photographs in the section presenting the faculties and departments more often showed students than buildings or other objects, but even in these photographs students rarely established any interaction with the reader, as their gaze was often diverted from the camera. Nevertheless, these photographs were obviously considered more important than the text, since they occupied more space on two adjacent pages, whereas the text was reduced to the lower quarter of a two-page section dedicated to each faculty or department. The University was visually defined as a pleasant place to study and the text ceased to be the main communication channel for transmitting information concerning academic development. In fact, this information was replaced by the general sense of agreeableness emanating from the photographs, which represent the institution, with the text as merely an appendage. This research and its results have demonstrated that, over the years, the University of Split has changed not only the mode of presenting information but also the mode of self-promotion in order to shape its public role and to attract students and, in so doing, increase its financial means. Its academic merits, its roles in setting scientific or artistic standards, or in providing a critique of social, economic or political processes were disregarded or ignored, in favour of a new identity as a service provider packaging education with new life experiences. At both levels, the verbal and the visual, the University was no longer represented as an academic institution which controlled processes and people. The results also showed that it had turned to a more pronounced use of a promotional discourse and the discursive practice of marketing, while simultaneously reducing the informativeness of its prospectuses. However, we cannot say that the University in question was engaged in serious marketization, especially when we compare our study with the results obtained by other researchers, who have elaborated on various significant promotional discursive practices at the universities they studied, some of which even function as enterprises. However, the trend is noticeable. Fairclough’s claim that discourse and society are inextricably intertwined is here confirmed, as social change has been reflected in the semiotic representations of academic institutions. These discourse shifts, which are interdiscursive examples of promotional activities, could impact on the professional role of universities in society and mark the beginning of a more extensive higher education marketization and consequently, of the use of market-oriented discursive practices.

  • Issue Year: 2023
  • Issue No: 44
  • Page Range: 43-68
  • Page Count: 26
  • Language: Croatian