When Leicester University vice-chancellor Bob Burgess interviewed architects bidding to design Leicester's biggest campus expansion since the 1960s, he asked them one key question: what is a university?
Only one firm came up with a satisfactory answer, and it got the job.
Professor Burgess explained why the question was so important: "It's not just about transforming the physical side of the university, it's also a question of intellectual development. We have to think about the university in its social context, the way in which teaching and research are juxtaposed, and where lifelong learning fits in."
Consultation is under way at Leicester about where the university wants to be in ten, 20 and 50 years' time.
The physical work has already begun, with the launch, in Leicester's 80th anniversary year, of a £33 million building and refurbishment programme. Once it is complete, the university will have a new biomedical sciences building, a space research and multidisciplinary modelling centre, and refurbished chemistry and archaeology buildings.
Another much smaller job that Professor Burgess has planned may carry even greater symbolic value. He wants to knock down a wall that runs along the border of the campus, which he sees as an emblematic barrier as well as a physical one between the university and the outside world.
Professor Burgess said that removing the wall would open up the campus and allow it to be integrated into its locality, more in the style of a North American institution. It would also demonstrate that Leicester was in the process of rethinking its role.
He said: "Once you start doing interesting things with the physical campus, then you can start doing interesting things with the concept of the university."
Professor Burgess wants Leicester to continue to be a research-led university, an ambition that looks set to be fulfilled as the university has recruited a record number of postgraduates, bringing their total to 10,000. It has also continued to improve on its research assessment exercise ratings and research income.
Leicester is also concerned with widening participation and lifelong learning. It has set up an Institute of Lifelong Learning and established a network of partnerships with 14 further education colleges, and is offering foundation degrees in collaboration with some of them. Professor Burgess suggested that there could be scope in developing research partnerships between the university and partner colleges.
The reasons for development are pragmatic, as well as ideological. Professor Burgess pointed out that Leicester University "is a business, albeit a business for a very particular purpose". He did not expect Leicester to make much money out of the RAE; in fact, it could lose about £500,000 as a result of funding decisions following last year's results. He hoped that diversification would help compensate for that.
John Benyon, director of the Institute of Lifelong Learning, said: "There are enormous resources to be found in the local community, but you have to reach out for them. Industry and business are pretty hard-nosed, and they have to see that there is something in it for them. Our efforts to reach out will be driven by high ideals, but also by finance. There are pots of money for that and we have to be positioned to make successful bids."
Financial pressures and reforms in higher education were forcing the pace of change, creating an environment that Leicester would have to redefine to its central purpose, Professor Burgess said.
"Whatever happens, we cannot stand still. We need to think about where we are now, and where we want to get to," he said.