Plymouth University shows key to success is ‘being bold, not old’ as it climbs the ranks of the modern global elite

Older is better – well that’s what they say about wine, and it’s what they used to say about universities too.  But not anymore. To succeed as a world-class university, you don’t need to be old, just bold, as the launch of this year’s THE Top 100 Under 50 World Rankings powerfully demonstrates in shining the spotlight on excellence, wherever it is found, without regard to the year date-stamped on our birth certificate. 

I was on stage at the official launch of the rankings at the Going Global conference in Miami when the news was revealed that Plymouth University is now ranked at 42, so well inside the top 50 global modern universities – up 11 places from 2013 – and 6th in terms of UK institutions under the age of 50. In fact, we’re the highest ranked post-1992 university in the country. At the invite of the British Council and Times Higher Education, I was delighted to have the opportunity to share with a global audience of over 1,000 senior Higher Education delegates how we are taking our University from ‘good to great’ – and even more so to then see this externally recognised by the most comprehensive and respected world rankings. This capped off a whirlwind of a week for us in showcasing our university as we also co-hosted the inaugural Times Higher Education Young Universities Summit and delivered a keynote for the University Alliance.

The take-home message was loud and clear that the emergence of an ambitious and somewhat precocious group of world-class universities is worth celebrating.  And it’s worth asking how we did it – how do we go from zero to hero as a university?

The key is excellence. Excellence in what you do in terms of your subject base for teaching, learning and research.  And excellence in how you do it.  You need to articulate the distinctiveness of your student experience and how you are tackling the grand challenges of our day through research and its translation.  And it’s important to have a sense of civic engagement and connectedness to the communities you serve in society. 

At Plymouth University, the mission of our academic and scholarly community is to ‘advance knowledge and transform lives through education and research’, but it’s our vision to be the enterprise university that distinguishes us.  Enterprise – a boldness of spirit and readiness of undertaking – which infuses our approach to all of our activities and work with partners.  We have sought to carve out a distinctive space within a crowded market by looking at our teaching and research through an enterprise lens. Pioneering in our approach and not afraid to take risks.  In doing so, we are making a real and sustainable difference to our students, staff, local community and wider economy.  And our distinctiveness has helped us emerge as one among the new global modern elite group of universities.

We hear a lot about the fact that higher education is being disrupted and operating in a more marketised environment, and to succeed in this new era we need to embrace change as an opportunity to be agile and think afresh about how we do things – to innovate while staying true to our purpose.  Given the number of modern universities trailblazing a path into joining the ranks of the global elite, achieving in just a matter of years what more established universities have taken centuries to do, it’s clear we’re doing it!

Distinctiveness is key – focusing on our purpose and delivering what we are really good at.  In this new fast-moving landscape which presents a myriad of challenges, there is a heightened need for strategic agility and market presence in terms of distinctiveness – mission, leadership and a strong academic offering that’s appropriately priced. This move to embrace and articulate distinctiveness not only helps individual universities to survive and thrive in a globalised marketplace, but it adds richness to the whole sector.  We want a more heterogeneous and diversified sector – not vertically hierarchal but horizontally stratified around excellence.

Like Plymouth University, many universities are clarifying what they want to stand for, and how they want to stand out, so that they can succeed in an increasingly competitive global market.  And we can already see how universities are moving from self-interest to public service, becoming less ‘ivory tower’ and more connected, more inclusive, more global and most of all, more distinctiveness and successful on the world stage.  So you don’t need to be old, just be bold!

Read my full opinion piece in the Times Higher Education Top 100 Under 50 Supplement on Thursday 1st May 2014.

Categorized as October