Tony Tysome and Harriet Swain go in search of the Midlands, a region that is busy bridging an east-west divide, increasing participation rates and developing links
De Montfort is not an easy place to pin down. For one thing, it is spread over four vastly different centres - Leicester, Bedford, Milton Keynes and Lincoln - made up of ten campuses, each with its own specialisms, writes Harriet Swain.
For another, it is always on the move, developing programmes for brewers in South Africa, creating a course for Cuban finance managers and taking over Bristol University's legal practice course to add to its portfolio of such courses in Birmingham and Cambridge.
Director of marketing Marianne Harris-Bridge says it is always a problem telling potential students what the experience will be like, because it will be different depending on where they study.
If they go to Leicester, where the university began, they will live in a multicultural city with lots of shops and an active arts centre. If they study at Bedford, they will be in a county town. At Lincoln, which concentrates on land-based studies and conservation, they will be in the middle of the country. And Milton Keynes, which offers computing, economics, land management and urban studies, is the archetypal new town.
"We offer something for everyone," Ms Harris-Bridge says. Not everyone sees this as a good thing. Critics suggest that the university spreads itself too thin and they are sniffy about its empire-building tendencies.
Michael Brown, pro vice-chancellor at the university, admits it is hard to find a single label describing what De Montfort does. The only theme drawing the university together, he says, is the "preparation for life" slogan developed by an advertising agency.
"Each faculty has a plan and its main functions," he says. "But if something comes up that looks interesting and we can afford to take it on, we will have a go at it." But he says, "We do not just grab everything," He claims to have recently turned down ten institutions seeking a merger.
The university prides itself on being a player in the region, which provides about 40 per cent of its students, but it does not see itself or its competition limited geographically. The university's expansionist policy developed from its need to make ends meet, and it has no plans to stop.
When it became incorporated in 1989, it inherited Pounds 6 million of debt, which it turned around within two years through the business ethos introduced by vice-chancellor Kenneth Barker and a new board of governors combined with a series of building acquisitions. It has already hit its target of 30,000 students by 2000, set at the time.
Soon after incorporation, the World Bank identified De Montfort as the fastest growing university in western Europe.
Its latest focus, also related to the search for cash, is research. Last year it earned nearly Pounds 10 million via the research assessment exercise, research councils, the European Union and research contracts. Its latest slogan is: "research underpins everything we do".