England is launching its own debate on profiling anddistinctiveness in higher education. Platform for this discussionis the Distinct project, which conducts research intohow universities already build distinct profiles and what bestpractices are. Anne Gwinnett, one of the project’s sponsors, saidthat “most forces affecting universities pushed them towardshomogeneity; they were expected to compete for funding and a placein the league tables based on a set of criteria common to all.”
This homogenity, however, needs to be overcome in order tofoster academic quality and excellence. “With increasedcompetition, institutions will need to be able to express, clearlyand convincingly, why they should be the preferred choice ofprospective students, potential donors, employees of the calibrethey need or partner organisations.”
Linked to Veerman report
This debate on distinctiveness looks remarkably verysimilar to the discussion on profiles anddifferentiation following the recommendations of the Veermanreport in Dutch HE. These stressed for instance that bothuniversities and universities of applied sciences should createclearer profiles in order to make sure that students arematched with the right institutes and studyprogrammes. In thiscontext, special attention would be paid to study success,dropout-reduction, diversity, flexibility, and customization ofhigher education.
The Distinct project has now defined a number guidelinesuniversity leaders should follow in order to achieve greaterdistinctiveness:
- Find your unifying core. What is itabout your institution that makes it special to both employees andexternal audiences? What is the core of why you exist and what youoffer to the world that can’t be found elsewhere? Why are you oneinstitution rather than a loose confederation of departments?
- Identify and understand your keyaudiences. You can’t be all things to all people, soprioritise and focus your resources where they will have mostimpact. In order to influence your key audiences you need tounderstand what they think of HE in general and of your institutionin particular. Good quality, unbiased research is key.
- Perception is reality. People willact based on their perception – no matter how inaccurate – so, foryour institution, their perceptions are your reality. Don’t seek tojustify or explain why they are wrong. Give them reasons to believethe things you want them to know.
- Leadership commitment is vital.Senior management need to be open to the idea that what you aspireto be is not necessarily how you are perceived. Only then will theresources and leadership needed to establish and communicatedistinctiveness be forthcoming.
- Have the courage to stand out. In thewords of Michael Porter: “Strategy is choosing to run a differentrace because it’s the one you’ve set yourself up to win.” Identifywhat you are really better at than those institutions which youraudiences regard as your competitors, and commit to that.