Leicester's two very different universities are merging their efforts so each can meet the diverse needs for higher education. Tony Tysome reports.
The University of Leicester and De Montfort University have had little to do with each other in the past. But with a new vice-chancellor at the helm of each, and a shared desire to become more distinctive and to be better understood, a spirit of collaboration is growing.
Both vice-chancellors, Bob Burgess at Leicester and Philip Tasker at De Montfort, agree that local and regional cooperation and the forging of fresh partnerships are necessary if they are to meet new challenges facing the sector.
While there is little prospect of the kind of union that is under consideration between Birmingham and Aston universities, efforts to review and reposition themselves are bringing Leicester and De Montfort closer together in some surprising ways.
The changes under way may help project a clearer image of what the two universities are about, dispelling some myths along the way. Leicester University's emphasis on research excellence sometimes leads to the mistaken assumption that it is a Russell Group institution. It has been ranked 18th in university research league tables for 1998-99, and Professor Burgess agrees that "the Russell Group is clearly one that it would be appropriate for us to be associated with".
But while Russell Group membership may be Leicester's ultimate destination, Professor Burgess wants to push in another direction - towards lifelong learning. This year, the university established an institute of lifelong learning and an institution-wide graduate school.
Meanwhile, De Montfort is keen to shake off the perception that it is only interested in rapid expansion, open access and lifelong learning. This image is fuelled by the fact that the university is spread across eight counties, with four campuses with a total of ten sites in Leicester, Bedford, Lincoln and Milton Keynes, and links with 11 further education colleges. While being perhaps the most distributed university in the UK outside of the Open University has its advantages, Professor Tasker is painfully aware that it has often led to the wrong conclusions being drawn about the kind of higher education De Montfort aims to offer.
One of the "myths", he points out, is that "De Montfort is all over the place and across the globe". In fact, it restricts its overseas activities to only a few countries and overseas recruitment levels are relatively low. He insists that the UK links are also carefully targeted, strategic and focused, and "we know exactly why we are in each partnership".
The overlap in activities between Leicester and De Montfort is not just one-way. While Leicester is making inroads into lifelong learning, De Montfort wants to broadcast the message that it has a serious stake in research.
Professor Tasker points out that in the last research assessment exercise, De Montfort came out top among the post-1992 universities in terms of research income. It was ranked 22 out of 100 institutions rated in a research funding league table compiled by the Higher Education Management Statistics Group and 15th in a new league table of arts and humanities research funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Board.
He said: "I would not want to see us pigeon-holed. We are a very large university. There are broad themes that are important to us, but we are very diverse as an organisation and very dynamic.
"We are not research-led, but we have research strengths that distinguish us in each of our faculties."
Both De Montfort and Leicester are in the process of reviewing where they are and where they are going. With universities now being encouraged to focus on niche markets and play to their strengths, it might seem an odd move for them to grab a stake in each other's key area of activity - even if this does mean the two vice-chancellors and senior staff meeting once a term to look at possible joint projects. Professor Burgess says there is nothing contradictory about this.
He said: "One of the things I have been doing this year is to position Leicester in a way that people know what our key features are. We are about research and teaching, but the teaching is as much postgraduate as it is undergraduate - and we believe widening participation and lifelong learning is as much a postgraduate issue as an undergraduate one.
"We are thinking about professional groups that have access to higher education and the way we would develop postgraduate programmes for them as part of continuing professional development (CPD). People might take lifelong learning or CPD modules, which could build towards a masters programme. I think it is important for universities to think in this way and not see everything packed into tight compartments."
Leicester's venture into lifelong learning and CPD has, perhaps for the first time, forced it to take widening participation and the local dimension very seriously. Performance indicators show that, to date, Leicester has been doing well on this front in some areas but extremely badly in others. Its intake of young state school applicants, for instance, is 84 per cent, against a national benchmark of 78 per cent. It is also slightly above the national benchmark on recruitment of young people from low participation neighbourhoods and lower social class groups.
But it is well below targets on recruitment of mature entrants with no previous higher education and it recruits virtually no part-timers in this category, compared with an 18 per cent national benchmark.
The other area where Leicester is conscious it needs to improve, particularly in comparison with De Montfort, is recruitment of people from ethnic minority groups. Ethnic groups, which include a large Indian community, make up about 30 per cent of the local population. Yet even in professional areas of training, which tend to attract a higher proportion of candidates from Asian groups, Leicester's student body is far from representative.
Asian students accounted for 17 per cent of entrants to read law in 1999, for instance - not bad considering Leicester tends to recruit nationally. But on most courses the proportion of Asian candidates is way below this figure.
Professor Burgess acknowledges this, and improvement of the situation is another of his university's targets. Meetings have taken place with representatives from the Leicestershire Asian Business Association to explore how the needs of the local Asian business community might be better served by the university.
According to Jaswinder Hayer, president of LABA, this is the first move of its kind by a Leicester University vice-chancellor.
But he added: "The university should not just pay lip service to this issue if it wants to make progress. It has to make a longer term investment to bring about a step change in attitudes in the Asian community as well as the university. It needs to shout louder about what it has to offer us."
On this last point, vice-chancellors at both Leicester and De Montfort are in full agreement. Professor Burgess said: "The university has to say loudly and clearly what it stands for. We need to make links with the right kind of organisations locally, nationally and internationally.
"We will need to think about how we shape and re-shape our portfolio. In this competitive age you have to play to your strengths and maintain a distinct identity in the process. You do not want to end up with numerous links that do not contribute to the core identity of the parent organisation."
Although Professor Tasker does not believe De Montfort's numerous links detract from its core identity, he is conscious of "a need to work on our image because of the myths that surround the university and the nature of its broad name".
A name change of some kind may even be on the cards, to give a better sense of the university's location - although the name De Montfort would be retained in the title. To help focus the institution and polish its image, the university has been working on its mission statement over the past year.
Professor Tasker explained: "When you develop a new name, you need to do some branding. We are now in a phase where we want to associate that name with certain facilities."
Professor Burgess suggests that in the current climate of change affecting the sector, this is a sensible move. But managers need to carry academics with them, particularly when it comes to re-shaping an institution's "portfolio" of subject areas and activities.
"Every institution needs to think about the range of its activities. Organisations are good at taking on new activities but, generally, not so good at deciding what to omit. Those decisions need to be taken by the faculties and departments, not just central management," he said.