'We had a name with one dead county in it'

March 19, 2004

How do you reverse the fortunes of a university in free fall and make a name for it in a crowded field? Lincoln's vice-chancellor gave Jim Kelly a few tips.

The emerging market in higher education already has some well-known brands - from Oxbridge, redbrick and Russell Group, through campus and plate glass, to new, modern and polyversity.

With the advent of top-up fees some universities will try to cement their brand, others may want to shift up-market. One early mover is Lincoln University, which is launching itself as a "cathedral city" university.

Lincoln, formerly the University of Lincolnshire and Humberside, wants to match the appeal of places such as York, Durham and Bath, where students can enjoy metropolitan life, while their parents can value a less brash, more secure environment away from big industrial cities.

The brand also carries academic and cultural prestige, and a measure of instant recognition at home and abroad. This is very different from the image ULH had acquired as a struggling former polytechnic with its roots in Hull.

When David Chiddick arrived as vice-chancellor in 2000 from De Montfort University, applications were dropping. "They'd fallen from 10,000 to 6,600 - it was in free fall," he says.

With top-up fees focusing parents' minds on costs, Professor Chiddick knew he needed to make sure the university could dominate its home market of "Greater Lincolnshire", a university-free swathe of eastern England from King's Lynn to the Humber, and Skegness to Doncaster.

"We had this name with two counties in it - and one of them was dead. It wasn't a very enticing prospect." he says.

Central to the relaunch was the name and the shift to Lincoln. A survey among potential students about brand image showed Lincoln would have been ranked sixth in the country if it had existed, while ULH would have been bottom. In 2003, the newly christened Lincoln notched up a 19 per cent increase in applications to more than 14,000 - the second highest rise in the country.

Average A-level entry points last year were 180 - about three Ds - compared with 222 this year. Five years ago, 25 per cent of students came through clearing, while this year 8 per cent did so.

"You can see the difference in the students," Professor Chiddick says.

"They don't look as though they've come off the beach at Falaraki now."

The new university has taken shape quickly. Hull remains part of the long-term plan, partly to service local niche markets and partly as a valuable marketing presence in a major city. But there will be no more "competing over a hedge", as Professor Chiddick puts it, with Hull University.

Professor Chiddick has also severed nearly 30 overseas franchise agreements where quality had been an issue, while local outreach programmes have been stepped up and aimed at "cold spots" such as Boston, where there is little family tradition of higher education.

In Lincoln, Professor Chiddick picked up two sites from De Montfort University, including the art and design school "on the hill" by the cathedral. But the heart of the new university is the brownfield site by the river below.

In total, £72 million has been spent, based on a 1996 package of Pounds 32 million from local councils and business. There has been some hefty borrowing, one reason why fees are going to be £3,000 across the board, although poorer local students will pay nothing.

The next phase of development will include a student entertainment venue and a library. But the most significant investment has been in people.

Professor Chiddick has created an echelon consisting of senior academics, with the number of professorial chairs jumping from eight to 36.

The academic focus is on "professionalisation", winning recognition for courses from bodies such as the Royal Institute of British Architects.

This puts Lincoln above "vocational" in the emerging market, but with links to scholarship and with room for "research led", if things go well.

There is a push to promote research and win 5* status at the next research assessment exercise for departments such as art and design, and social policy.

"For me, coming to Lincoln offers the chance to build a new theatre programme. The speed of change here is really more American than British," says Michael Earley, one of Lincoln's new faculty. He was at one time head of drama at Yale University, and he praises Lincoln's commercial, community-based approach.

In five year's time, Professor Chiddick hopes to have 9,000 students, compared with the current 7,300, including 1,000 from overseas. The goal is to create a new kind of university, but firmly nestled within the established cathedral city brand.

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