Distinct opportunity

January 20, 2011

In Phil Baty's leading article "Missions trail leads to success" (13 January), the case for diversification and differentiation was made strongly with the warning: "Universities that fail to establish a distinctive mission and do not carve out a niche may struggle to survive in the coming marketplace."

Distinctiveness strategies have been at the forefront of our work at the University of Plymouth, where we have headed a project, "Leading Transformational Change", funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England. In conjunction with colleagues at Teesside University, our project has mapped English higher education institutions according to their mission statements.

As reported in Times Higher Education in October, the study specifically examines new market spaces for the higher education sector and considers the academic leadership and business models needed to support and sustain them.

The results show that the majority of university missions are trying to cover all bases, ie, "the race to the middle". Interestingly, during the course of our research we have seen a number of universities that have broken away from the pack to focus on particular niche areas - developing their unique position and creating new markets or increasing their market share.

As well as strategies for developing distinctiveness, it appears that mission groups do not best reflect the higher education landscape going forward. There is broad agreement that universities will need to define and articulate their student offer in the post-Browne, post-Comprehensive Spending Review environment, with perhaps an institution-specific focus based upon place, partnerships, reputation and mission. We need to reconsider the long-held assumptions about the building blocks of higher education when the onus is now so clearly placed upon individual institutions and how they stand out from the crowd.

Wendy Purcell, Vice-chancellor, University of Plymouth.

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