Scramble to adjust market status has already begun ahead of 2009 review of tuition fees. Tony Tysome reports
For many vice-chancellors, it has become a question of "when", not "if". The 2009 review of student tuition fees is widely expected to herald a significant increase in the current cap of £3,000 a year, if not the introduction of an unadulterated free market of cheque-book-wielding student customers.
Universities are engaging in an increasingly tense jostle for position in the emerging market.
One key question hangs over the manoeuvring: how much can each individual institution afford to charge for its courses without driving students elsewhere?
"Universities will need to reposition themselves. Some will make huge mistakes, others will prosper - a mixture of judgment and luck," said Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University.
David Robertson, professor of public policy at Liverpool John Moores University, agreed. "It remains to be seen how they are going to work it out, but no one can afford to fantasise about what they would like to be. The market will shake that out very quickly."
The Government reiterated its desire to see universities looking for niches and focusing on what they do best, in its annual letter to the Higher Education Funding Council for England earlier this year.
Alan Johnson, then the Secretary of State, said he would like to see a "relatively small" concentration of universities working much more closely with business to design and deliver degree courses co-funded by employers. "This would be consistent with the diversity of missions for institutions that the Government has emphasised consistently since the 2003 higher education White Paper," he said.
This week, four institutions at a crossroads in their histories shared their strategic vision with The Times Higher : Swansea, which next month gains formal independence from the federal University of Wales; the so-called "new new university" Edge Hill, which is growing rapidly since gaining the title of university last year; the newest new university, Cumbria, which officially launches next month; and Huddersfield, with a new vice-chancellor ready to set his stamp on the institution's strategies.
Faced with the uncertainty of the future, none is willing to conform to the traditional models or fall back into comfort zones.
Edge Hill University, for instance, is planning to compete with the likes of elite Russell Group members Liverpool and Manchester universities, albeit in a smaller number of specialist academic areas.
John Cater, its vice-chancellor, explained: "The future of the newest new universities is not in direct competition with the former polytechnics, but in strengthening their niche in the marketplace - and that niche is as an alternative to the pre-92 universities rather than the post-92s."
To boost its profile, Edge Hill has been spending about 3 per cent of its turnover - amounting to about £2 million this year - on a marketing campaign.
Professor Cater said: "I believe we have about five years to establish ourselves in the marketplace. We have to be seen as a provider of choice when the cap comes off top-up fees."
Swansea: 'Science park concept' for campus
Swansea University plans to develop what it promises will be "a new model of higher education" on a new 100-acre campus.
Richard Davies, Its vice-chancellor, has devised a vision of higher education based on meeting the Government's skills agenda, in which universities become explicitly "business facing". This means not only carrying out the research that business wants but drafting in companies to help develop new courses and inviting companies to provide teaching on campus.
Although a final site has yet to be chosen, Professor Davies said: "We are developing a concept of a business-facing campus, with accommodation that will be shared between businesses and the university.
"Usually with a science park-type development you get some exchange, but there are clear territorial distinctions. The central concept will be to get rid of these boundaries so that people from industry and the university are genuinely working alongside each other."
The move coincides with the news that Swansea, part of the federal University of Wales, will officially gain its own formal university title from September, although it will continue to award University of Wales degrees.
Swansea is currently assessing possible sites at Llanelli, Port Talbot and in the Swansea area for its new campus. The extra space is needed because its current main campus is full. The precise number of staff and students who will be located at the new site is not yet known.
Edge hill: More students and more research
On the face of it, Edge Hill University's ambitions hardly seem unique. Over the next ten years or so, the institution plans to get bigger and better.
What is different, the university's managers argue, is that it is walking the walk as well as talking the talk.
Having just acquired 90 acres of land that will almost double the size of its Ormskirk campus, it will be well placed to expand student numbers by nearly 30 per cent by 2020.
Demand certainly seems to be growing for its 200-plus degree programmes. By May this year, applications had risen by more than 38 per cent compared with last year.
The university is also going through the process of gaining research degree awarding powers. This is part of a concerted effort to build up Edge Hill's research profile - a "vital step" if the university is to establish parity of esteem with those it aspires to compare itself to, according to its vice chancellor, John Cater.
While it is not planning to challenge the research elite in pure research, Professor Cater believes that to many top-up fee-paying prospective students, excellence in research that is closely in touch with the world of work can be just as impressive.
Cumbria: distributed model makes a comeback
The UK's newest new university officially came into being this week, embarking on a mission that its vice-chancellor argues is unique.
Chris Carr says the University of Cumbria will defy being cast as just another new university because its approach to higher education is distinctive to its area.
Both the geographical and educational profile of the region means it has been necessary to resurrect the multi-campus "distributed model" of higher education that most new universities have drawn back from. The university's 17,000 students and 1,500 staff will be spread across six sites, including the former St Martin's College of Higher Education, the Penrith and Carlisle campuses of the University of Central Lancashire and the Cumbria Institute of the Arts. In the mix are also a small teacher-training outpost in Tower Hamlets, London, and four Cumbrian further education colleges that will be playing their part in the network.
Professor Carr said: "I have been asked before what would be my model university, but I do not think there is one. I think what we have to do is shape the university in the light of the needs we are seeking to meet. We will be drawing on examples from other parts of the sector, depending on what we are doing. But there is no one university that we can say we would want to be like."
Huddersfield: ready to pay for expertise
Adjusting to changing market conditions does not always have to be about becoming more narrowly focused or specialising in a particular type of education.
That is the view of Bob Cryan, vice-chancellor of Huddersfield University, who has been leading a review of his institution's position in the sector since his arrival six months ago.
Professor Cryan believes that despite significant changes taking place in higher education, it is a fair strategy for a new university such as Huddersfield to continue to face in all directions - to build up its research base while maintaining an emphasis on widening participation, quality teaching and collaboration with industry and the professions.
He wants the university to fill 20 new chairs over the next year - a feat that may be aided by the introduction of a professorial pay scheme under which top salaries will reach £80,000 a year.
"I want to move away from being seen as an ex-polytechnic or a new university to being just a good university of a particular kind that is good on access and has a serious engagement with the third mission agenda and research," Professor Cryan said.
Pat Cullum, head of the university's history faculty, said: "It means we will not get stranded because we only do one type of higher education."