How to achieve selective greatness (for a university)
In the most recent issue of the US journal Chronicle of Higher Education there is some advice on how to develop a university’s reputation so that it will become noticed. The article lists five actions that can help achieve this, these being ‘playing to your strengths’ (provide selective focus), ‘putting a face at the top’ (getting media attention for the president), being in a ‘hot town or city’, being good at promoting or marketing the institution’s programmes, developing an external perspective to guide quality.
Let me look briefly at the first of these. The Chronicle suggests that a university that is able to prioritise four or five programmes and put resources into them will attract more attention and will be able to achieve world class excellence. However, most universities don’t see themselves as specialist institutions and may be reluctant to pursue a selective resourcing strategy.
The argument for selective focus is that most universities are not big enough to cover all subjects in a satisfactory manner. Not every university needs to have every specialism, and unless you are already established as a leading global university, you will find it very hard to maintain a large number of subject areas while protecting quality. A selective focus can of course mean a number of things: it can refer to a choice of disciplines, or to a selection of inter-disciplinary areas clustered in a thematic way, or to a focus on innovative teaching and research methodologies.
As higher education and research becomes more and more expensive, it will be necessary to avoid the risk that too many universities become generalist institutions with modest means and unremarkable achievements and outputs. It will make more sense to provide strong financial backing for a smaller number of priority areas, which can then secure an international impact.
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