What did you dream of when you went to university? For many Australians, that probably depended on what they’d indulged in the night before. But, perhaps, others dared to imagine that they could change the world.

In an unprecedented advertising campaign for TV and cinema, the University of Melbourne is exhorting people to “dream large” about tertiary education: students, of course, academics, perhaps, and no doubt potential benefactors.

The ” dreamlarge ” campaign (note the stylistic use of lower case that’s so in vogue in contemporary graphic design) was launched a couple of weeks ago in support of the uni’s radical and risky move to the “Melbourne Model”, in which it will offer only six multi-potential undergraduate degrees, and professional degrees in law, medicine and the like will be offered only at postgraduate level.

The three TVCs currently available online here (or via YouTube ) are sweeping in their scope — clearly they’ve spent up big on library footage. The message, delivered through dramatic images and simple text, appears to be that Melbourne Uni is the place for students who aspire to find a cure for Aids, solve global warming, save the rainforests and put an end to poverty, famine and war. It also seems designed to position Melbourne on a global, not just a local, stage.

In an email to staff, Vice-Chancellor Professor Glyn Davis says the campaign “highlights the benefits to individuals and society at large of a well-rounded education … challenges us all to realise our potential through broad education (and) … asks us to recognise we are global citizens and can be part of the solution to the large-scale issues facing humanity”. The ads refer to a dedicated website (www.dreamlarge.edu.au), and outdoor and print iterations of the campaign are to follow.

Educationally, the “Melbourne Model” is a daring move. A big, classy, emotional TV campaign like “dreamlarge” is also a revolutionary step for an Australian university. Even though tertiary education should be a highly involving category for its consumers — after all, it’s risky, expensive and life-changing — Australians have not traditionally had a high degree of emotional engagement with it. In the US, by contrast, graduates often have deep attachments to their alma mater and such universities as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford and Notre Dame carry complex brand associations that extend across all sectors of the US community — think of Thurston Howell III of Gilligan’s Island exclaiming “Good heavens, a Yale man!” in horror.

So, there’s plenty of emotional headroom for Melbourne and its agencies to exploit. But there’s also considerable risk attached to a campaign like this. Banks, pharmaceutical companies, miners, telcos and other big corporations that have embarked on aspirational campaigns about how they are changing the world are nonetheless judged in the end by their deeds, not by clever words or evocative imagery.

At least as a place of learning and research a university (unlike a bank) can credibly claim to be shaping minds and building a better world. But our universities as a whole have an image problem. Strapped for cash, many are popularly perceived to have lowered their standards in order to take on ever-larger numbers of poorly qualified, fee-paying, international students in academic programs that look educationally dubious. A very high level of cynicism is likely on the part of the broader community audience.

Can the University of Melbourne — admittedly one of our own august “sandstone” schools — put that much distance between itself and the pack? And is a highly emotive advertising execution, designed to stir the heart and bring a lump to the throat, the way to do it? Or will it simply look arrogant and elitist, as some early internal staff reaction to Davis’s email seems to suggest? Blogger and staff member Grey passions writes, for example:

It’s kinda hilarious — part of me wishes I was a film student, cos it’s just begging to be spoofed. My favourite one is the “Can you see?” movie, where it shows images of all these “problems” (like poverty, disease, Aboriginal children (it’s not entirely clear what the “problem” is) …) and basically suggests that Melbourne graduates will solve them. The arrogance is astounding.

In other words, is the university dreaming?

Note: Dr Stephen Downes has carried out market research for faculties of the University of Melbourne in the past, but has had no involvement in the current campaign or strategy.

For a full round-up of the news and views on the new-look University of Melbourne, go to sneedleflipsocktheblog .

Peter Fray

Help us keep up the fight

Get Crikey for just $1 a week and support our journalists’ important work of uncovering the hypocrisies that infest our corridors of power.

If you haven’t joined us yet, subscribe today and get your first 12 weeks for $12.

Cancel anytime.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey