There are over 100 UK universities and most of them are not distinctive at an institutional level. There are a few universities which are effectively brand names in themselves, either at the national or international level (for example, Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial, LSE, SOAS, and the Open University). There are a handful which have very distinctive forms of teaching, like Birkbeck and Buckingham. There are slightly more which have distinctive locations: in cities that students particularly want to go to (Manchester, Durham etc) or where there are a particularly large number of students who want to study near where they live (Lincoln, University of Highlands and Islands), or who want to stay in a particular region (Scottish students are increasingly not considering English universities because of tuition fees).
Most universities, however, dont have these unique selling points at an institutional level. Its hard to say whats special about Royal Holloway or Lancaster or De Montfort as universities. But most universities have what is known as ‘pockets of excellence’. Their distinctiveness is at the faculty or course level: so people who dont have an intrinsic burning desire to be a student or lecturer at York or Dundee might nevertheless be very interested if they were in a particular field.
It has therefore seemed obvious to senior managers at ordinary universities what you should do. The Ambitious University (and who wants to be at Unambitious University?) needs to thrive in a global market, and so it follows best business practice. You identify your areas of strength and develop them for all theyre worth; you cut, or eliminate entirely, the less successful areas. What could possibly go wrong?
The problem is time-scales. To devise a new course and have it get a reputation needs 5 years at the minimum (several years planning, plus time for first cohort to graduate). To improve the research reputation of a department again takes 5-10 years (unless youre willing to buy in expensive new talent). To create and develop a new department is probably going to take 10 years or more. Unfortunately, markets for higher education move much quickly than that. Subjects such as forensic science can become fashionable with students on the basis of TV programmes. The demand for particular courses (and for education as a whole) is affected by the state of the economy. Its also affected by the policy of governments and research funding bodies, and by global events. The clever academic strategist of 1999/2000 would have argued that the way forward was courses in internet business strategies and financial mathematics. As for courses in Farsi or Islamic theology, who could possibly see a use for that? And given that the Russian economy had collapsed, why still bother with teaching students Russian? The clever academic strategist of 1988/89, meanwhile, would have realised that the market for Kremlinologists was a stable one, and that high temperature superconductivity would change the world more than the internet.
To successfully predict the markets for research funding and undergraduate degrees 5 or 10 years in the future, therefore, requires exceptional forecasting skills in many different areas. Unfortunately, people with such track records can normally find more lucrative positions than the top jobs in UK universities. As a result, what tends to happens to Ambitious University is that at some point their ambitious plans dont work out, because they dont get the funding results they expect. Its not surprising that they end up in the soup, axing whole departments or cutting jobs for short-term savings.
At this point, maybe Unambitious University starts looking a better bet: or rather, Reliable University. Reliable University realises that universities arent exactly the same as manufacturers of chocolate bars. Oxford and Cambridge may be the market leaders, but theyre not going to take over the whole university sector. And despite all the changes in the student body, there is still a substantial market for standard courses: a number of people will always want to study French, for example. If Ambitious University has cut its courses in the topic, there are more students to go round the remaining colleges: one of Reliable Universitys mottos is were still here.
Reliable University thus aims to have a wide portfolio of courses, but it doesnt aim to change them much. Its policy is incrementalism: gradually nudging up the quality of research and teaching in a variety of fields, expanding only cautiously, when it has long-term funding in place. More unusually, its investment tends to be contracyclical. When a subject does well and pulls in the students and grants, it doesnt automatically get additional rewards from the university. The concern is to avoid bubbles: research panels arent likely to keep on rewarding the same kind of work indefinitely, fashionable subjects may go out of fashion again. Similarly, if a department does badly, the immediate response is not cuts or threats of closures (as at Ambitious University), but to see if extra investment and effort can reverse the situation. There is a conservative edge to every decision made, and because it doesnt have grand strategic plans, but focuses on tactics, it needs fewer expensive strategic planners at the top.
Is such a university feasible? The conventional business wisdom would say not, and that such a business would get taken over by a rival. But that isnt realistically going to happen to a UK university. Secondly, business wisdom would say that Reliable University wont be able to retain staff. Why should successful staff stay there, when they can go onto bigger and better things at Ambitious University? On the other hand, if you go to Ambitious University on the promise of big things, what happens if it all goes wrong? You could find yourself out on your ear at a bad time. I suspect there would be a lot of academics who would exchange short-term advancement for long-term security.
At the moment in the UK what we are mostly seeing is the failure of the Ambitious University model. Its hard to find examples of Reliable University strategies; they wont feature prominently on websites (these are the nearest examples I can find). And I dont know whether such a strategy can be made to work in practice, but maybe somebody ought to start trying it.