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How does a modern university seek purpose?

Traditionally, competition between universities around the world has been based on history and achievements measured by conventional metrics. When Oxford and Cambridge and Harvard and Stanford dominate the top places again in the Times Higher Education (THE) World Rankings, it illustrates the advantages that come from long histories of research, the value of their physical assets and global reputations, and the financial resources that come from endowments, ongoing donations and high value partnerships. They are all great examples of the achievements of globally outstanding institutions, and they are role models for a growing number of institutions around the world that seek to emulate them.

But with the overall relative positions of individual institutions remaining relatively stable, and the combined impact of groups of universities in countries around the globe also changing only at the margins, the landscape of university change and innovation appears to be poorly captured by rankings. One could even argue that some rankings are, in and of themselves, now as traditional as some of the universities they seek to measure. This is not surprising given that some rankings are based on traditional metrics such as awards, papers and citations, and some systems are dominated by institutions which have been in the game long than others.

In these circumstances, it takes time and/ or large investments for a new institution seeking to break into an old system. There are examples, particularly from Asia, of some such institutions.  There are also signs of the rankings systems becoming more nuanced for modern universities and offering new ways of doing things. Western Sydney University topping the THE Impact Rankings, one of two global performance tables that assess universities against the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), in 2022, and Arizona State University (ASU) being ranked the number one ‘Most Innovative School’ in the United States by U.S. News & World Report for the eighth year running is evidence of this. In April 2022, Coventry University was honoured with The Queen’s Award for Enterprise in the category of International Trade, a prestigious business award in the UK. It was also highest-rated five years running for providing overseas student experiences.

So how does a modern entrant make their mark in a system with a traditional way of operating and how would we measure their achievement? There are some similarities in the above examples. Success was achieved through clear goals and strategies to deliver them, and a close consideration of local and community context. In the case of ASU and Coventry University, there was also a strong and sustained commitment to building partnerships particularly among the EdTech sector and wider tech community. The examples also suggest that newer players can make their mark by specialising in a particular field and aiming for the highest standards in what matters to them. For Coventry University, for example, their success was about creating better futures and delivering transformational change for their students, partners and communities around the world as they continue to evolve into a global education group.

We are seeing an increased focus on the concept of an entrepreneurial university globally in recent times. The National Centre for Entrepreneurship in Education (NCEE) in the UK has emerged to support, showcase and champion such differentiating providers. NCEE recognises an outstanding entrepreneurial university as:

an institution whose vision and strategy place enterprise, entrepreneurship and innovation at the heart of the organisation, where an environment has been created that encourages entrepreneurial mindsets and behaviours in staff and students, and ensures that ideas and innovation are nurtured and given the support they need to flourish and where the strategic approach to entrepreneurship has the potential to influence and improve other institutions’ work in this area, whether directly or because it is transferable in the sector more widely.

The activities and services NCEE provides includes the long-standing Entrepreneurial Leaders programme, which has been running for more than 10 years and supports education leaders to become more creative, innovative and agile. The programme builds a picture of practice and policy through thought pieces, national reports and policy papers on enterprise and entrepreneurial leadership within higher education, benchmarking institutions and assessing their entrepreneurial capacity as part of their Entrepreneurial University Framework and recognises best practice through the UK’s THE Higher Outstanding Entrepreneurial University Award every year.

More broadly, then, we might define a purposeful university as one willing to stand out from the pack of bunched competitors. Such an institution is purposeful in seeking to pursue non-traditional goals and achieve success measured by non-traditional metrics in research, teaching and learning.

A purposeful university might be described as one seeking to pursue a clear and different mission, and one that is innovative and creative in its leadership, strategy, partnerships and use of technology and business models. The purpose may be related to narrow or broad goals of sustainability as Western Sydney demonstrated when they have excelled against the UN SDGs as measured by the Impact rankings. Purpose might be defined by innovation as in the Arizona State University story, or entrepreneurial as in the NCEE’s definition. Or, it might be about achieving diversity, equity and inclusion in student engagement and recruitment, and thereby making the greatest impact by capitalising on the transformational potential of higher education for the greatest number students from under-represented backgrounds.

A purposeful university might also be one that focuses on student outcomes, in terms of career prospects, or lifelong opportunities and experiences. These goals were prioritised and achieved by Coventry University, and independently measured by The Guardian and QS World University Rankings, respectively. As we await the announcement of the 2022 THE Outstanding Entrepreneurial University in the UK, we might also reflect on some broader examples of how differentiation and purpose can be defined, pursued and celebrated. We should recognise the importance of strategy, leadership, culture, partnerships and technology, aligned with new business models, in getting there. This was the focus of a conversation on student engagement and online learning strategies Martin and Ian had together on HEDx recently which you can access here.

First published on HEPI on 3rd November 2022.
Emeritus Professor Martin Betts, Co-Founder of HEDx
Professor Ian Dunn, Provost of Coventry University and Chair of the National Centre for Entrepreneurship in Education (NCEE), and Ceri Nursaw, CEO of NCEE