Here's to the modern vintage

January 1, 1990
Man holding wine glass and bottle
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Wendy Purcell explains how and why university newcomers worldwide are offering bold new academic flavours.

Older is better: well, that is what they say about wine – and what they used to say about universities, too. But not now, not since Times Higher Education started shining the spotlight on excellence wherever it is found, without regard to the date stamped on the university birth certificate.

The emergence of an ambitious and somewhat precocious group of world-class universities is worth celebrating, and it’s worth asking how we did it. Well, we have learned the secrets of success from our elders but not betters to leapfrog into the future (and ahead of many of them). We can see the dangers of complacency, too.

So how as a university do you go from zero to hero? The key is excellence: there is simply no room for mediocrity. Excellence in terms of the subject base for teaching, learning and research – and excellence in how you do it – is a must. You also need to articulate the distinctiveness of your student experience and how you are tackling today’s grand challenges through research and its application.

In addition, having a sense of civic engagement and connectedness to the communities you serve is vital.

At Plymouth University, our academic and scholarly mission is to “advance knowledge and transform lives through education and research” – something most universities can identify with. But it is our vision to be “the enterprise university” that distinguishes us.

Enterprise – a spirit of boldness or readiness in undertaking – infuses our approach to all our activities. We have sought to carve out a distinctive niche for ourselves in a crowded market by viewing our teaching and research through an enterprise lens. Adopting this pioneering perspective makes us unafraid to take risks.

As a result, we are making a real and sustainable difference to our students, staff, local community and the wider economy. This distinctiveness has helped us emerge as part of a global elite of new universities – the 100 Under 50.

In the UK, we hear a lot about higher education being disrupted as it is forced to evolve into a more marketised environment. But markets and disruption have always been part of our world, especially when we look at the academy from an international perspective. To succeed, we need to be clear about who we are – our brand proposition. Increasing demand for higher education worldwide is a catalyst for universities with the agility and boldness that comes with youth to think afresh about how to do things, because what we do as universities matters to society.

Strategy is about choice, and disruption presents choices. So, to succeed at the highest level, leaders need to make decisions and embrace change. We must respond to the disruption applied to us and choose to seek it for ourselves in light of feedback from students, staff and stakeholders. In order to succeed, we need to innovate while staying true to our purpose. Given the number of modern universities blazing a trail into the global elite’s ranks, achieving in a matter of years what more established universities have taken centuries to attain, it is clear we are doing just that.

Distinctiveness is achieved by focusing on our purpose and delivering what we are really good at. In a fast-moving landscape presenting myriad challenges, there is heightened need for strategic agility and a singular market presence, delivered through the university’s mission, leadership and a strong, appropriately priced academic offering. Embracing and articulating distinctiveness not only helps individual universities to survive and thrive in a globalised marketplace, but it also adds richness to the sector as a whole. We want a more heterogeneous and diversified academy – not vertically hierarchal, but horizontally stratified around excellence.

Like Plymouth, many universities are formulating ways to stand out so that they can succeed in an increasingly competitive global market. And we can already see how many are moving from self-interest to public service, becoming less “ivory tower” and more connected, inclusive, distinct and successful on the global stage.

So you don’t need to be old; you just need to be bold.

Wendy Purcell is vice-chancellor and president of Plymouth University.

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