Insult transforms Luton's fortunes

October 29, 2004

Insult is the key to raising staff morale, boosting admissions and gaining a higher national profile - at least for Luton University.

Sir Richard Sykes's complaint in March this year about the Government's "bums-on-seats policy" and his claim that a penny spent at Imperial College London was a "hell of a lot better for the economy than a penny spent at Luton", which he described as "third rate", has proved an unexpected blessing for the insulted party.

Sir Richard, the rector of Imperial, united academics, students and the town in outrage, said Luton's vice-chancellor.

Discussing "reputation management" at the "Effective Marketing in Higher Education" conference in London this week, Les Ebdon said the affair had given him an opportunity to defend Luton and to highlight its strengths in the media.

The result? Applications rose by 1.5 per cent this year, and the ratio of applications to admissions climbed from one in seven to one in five.

Professor Ebdon said that when he became vice-chancellor in September 2003, Luton was a demoralised institution. Sir Richard's comments proved "fortuitous", Professor Ebdon said.

"We decided to sound puzzled rather than angry, and we didn't want to get into a direct spat," he said, noting that Sir Richard later withdrew the remarks. "There was outrage across the university and the town. That outcry led to a unity of purpose... and led us to reaffirm our strengths and rediscover a sense of pride in what we did."

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