Queen Margaret University College in Edinburgh this week celebrates its 125th anniversary. It arguably started life as a research-driven institution: its founders were inspired by studies on the link between poverty and ill-health, which showed that children from deprived backgrounds were less healthy than children from wealthier families.
They aimed to provide training for women from all backgrounds to improve both standards of health and career opportunities, including a campaign to introduce district nurses.
Outreach, wider access and lifelong learning have been perennial concerns. Tom Begg, of the department of applied consumer studies, in The Excellent Women, his book about the origins and history of QMUC, notes that by 1877 the college was running cookery classes in 41 towns.
It offered low-cost evening classes in cheap cookery, which attracted between 500 and 1,000 students per session. According to college records: "As a result of these branch classes, local committees have reported not only great general improvement in the cookery and economy of the district, but many individual instances of improved comfort in the homes of the working classes."
Joan Stringer, QMUC's principal, said it had retained its commitment to the community. It has launched a Pounds 5 million development campaign, which includes a centre for advances in elderly patient care, a centre for complementary medicine and an institute for international health, aimed at helping developing countries plan primary health care systems.
Other initiatives include a chair in community health nutrition and a chair in culinary arts, focusing on changing eating patterns, which include a 20 per cent drop in the past decade in meals eaten at home.
QMUC now offers degree courses in health, theatre arts, communication and information, science, business and management and social science, and claims Scotland's highest graduate employment rate of 86 per cent.
But it has at times found its progress frustratingly slow. As one of the Scottish Office's central institutions, it was unable to expand from being a small specialist institution. And while it has had degree-awarding powers since 1992, its size meant there was no prospect of achieving the university title.
But last year, it won the university college designation, and believes it is on track for meeting the university criteria. It has almost 3,000 full-time and 700 part-time students, and must have 4,000 full-time equivalent students overall. It is also well on the way to meeting the criterion of at least 300 students in five Scottish Higher Education Funding Council funding areas.
But Professor Stringer insisted that expansion must not come from disciplines that other institutions cover as well or better, but from fresh approaches to QMUC's work.
"I think the research assessment exercise has been a handicap," she said. "It keeps people focused on the subject groupings the RAE has set. It has improved, but it's tended to reflect the academic disciplines of the pre-92 institutions, and works against the kind of vocational subject base we have in place here."
An analysis of Shefc's teaching quality assessments between 1992 and 1998 shows QMUC outperforming all the post-92 universities and two of the older universities. Professor Stringer is looking to beef up the institution's postgraduate work, and believes the university title will be crucial in attracting high-calibre students.
"People ask me why Edinburgh needs a fourth university. But it's got four universities already. Dropping the college from our title wouldn't mean doing anything differently," she said.