Strategies for Excellence


Obviously, education and research are central in any university strategy, while community engagement might be counted as a third goal of universities. But there is also the need for inspiration, for a choice on the culture universities want to exude. Few universities or university departments have been able to encapsulate this in a single sentence or motto. Most often, vague lines are chosen like “entrepreneurial” or “innovative” university. I came across a good example of a university which found a condensed way of describing its culture at the Free University in Amsterdam. In 2013 that university selected three core values: personal (in the sense of the staff setting the examples), open (to students from all different backgrounds), and responsible (meaning: engendering a spirit of responsibility towards society among staff and students). Another good example is Harvard Business School (HBS) which stated in 2014, “… we believe that leadership and values are inseparable. The teaching of ethics is explicit, not implicit, and our community values of mutual respect, honesty and integrity, and personal accountability support the HBS …” [2]. A university wants to make a specific choice in the cultural values it pursues. This is not a mere choice of the right words, but should be visible in the implementation of the strategy. It should be explicit and one should be accountable for it, as HBS wants to be.

The choice for HBS was not unintended. Graduates of HBS were involved in many of the financial scandals in the US. HBS wanted to demonstrate that it had learned from experience, setting in this way an example for other business schools.

No Copycat. Differentiation Is the Name of the Game

One of the main headaches for governments in the past decades has been, and still is, the tendency for universities to all target the comfortable middle zone of the student market. Universities have shown themselves to be reluctant to change in this respect, in the same manner as the ice cream sellers who all like to stand at the main entrance to the beach, avoiding positioning themselves at the other entrances where perhaps fewer people are entering. The comfortable middle is one with a lot of competition (many ice cream sellers), but also with the comfort that it is a stable time-tested position, in particular when student numbers are increasing.

At the same time, there are different students with different talents and different ambitions. Also, the labor market has many dimensions. There is no “one size fits all” in the demand for graduates. Yet, the forces opposed to differentiation are considerable. Research universities often feel obliged to expand their scope by broadening the range of degree courses they offer to include non-research based elements, more appropriate for university community colleges for applied sciences, in order to attract additional students. Conversely community colleges or their equivalents feel that they are undervalued and strive for more research, for master degrees, or even for Ph.D. programs for inclusion in their proffered educational packages. Both cases involve reductions in quality for students in one way or another because the ensuing quality dilution is across the board. There is global recognition that there are at least four differentiated levels of higher education: the community colleges, the universities of applied sciences, the bachelor colleges, and the research universities. Roughly, some 60–80 % of the students are in the industrialized countries in the community colleges and universities of applied sciences and 20–40 % in colleges and research universities (OECD, Education at a Glance, 2014). It appears that in countries which follow this division the research universities are better placed in international rankings than in countries where less differentiation takes place.

Universities themselves should feel responsible for their position. Often, however, governments have to interfere to induce differentiation as universities are not able to resist the temptation of growth and universities of applied science are unable to avoid the insecurity of feeling undervalued. Increasing numbers of governments now also want to enter into performance agreements with universities so that universities choose specific profiles distinguishing them from others. Lack of clarity and visibility in universities' profiles is often due to governments' unwillingness to provide finance to universities for undifferentiated profiles.

The choice for differentiation is not only along the broad lines, but can also relate to specific student demands. Some universities seem to do very well for students from a non-traditional background (e.g., children of immigrants) and could make this a point of differentiation. Others are pioneers in new approaches to education like Olin College in Boston or Maastricht University, both utilizing a problem-based approach to learning in all of their courses. The Open Universities are examples of a differentiated approach, as are the newly emerging Internet universities such as the Khan Academy. A university can only opt for such a profile if it fits into a “business case”, i.e., that the university can sustain itself financially.

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