An engaging but provocative article in the Guardian suggested that a woman’s daughter said ‘no’ to Oxbridge institutions by choosing to join an innovative programme at Leeds University. I simply would like to suggest that her daughter did not reject the Oxbridge universities. Instead, she positively pursued a degree programme she found more attractive and most relevant to her interests – a history of art degree at Leeds University’s School of Fine Art. Her mother said is was ‘radical’ and was right up her daughter’s street. Wonderful. That is a win for Leeds.
Too often, universities and educational institutions can forget that it is not simply their general reputation or brand that attracts students. The best students are looking for programmes of direct relevance to their vision of their future. It will be the institutions that are continually seeking to strengthen programmes and innovate in their educational offerings that will succeed in attracting these students who are making informed choices.
Having been a former faculty member at Oxford, as well as a number of other institutions, including a visiting professorship at Leeds, it is possible for me to argue that this focus on educational degree programmes is one of the major reasons that Oxford has been so successful. Many examples come to mind, but consider two that are most obvious to me. First, it has continued to build on its strengths, such as its PPE (Philosophy, Politics, and Economics) degree, and secondly, innovate, such as in establishing the Oxford Internet Institute (OII). At the OII, where I taught, I was continually and pleasantly surprised to speak with applicants and students who convinced me that they only applied to Oxford to study at the OII. They were truly interested in the societal implications of the Internet and related media and a post-graduate degree programmed designed to address their particular interests.
So congratulations to Leeds University for putting together a programme that attracted this parent’s daughter. Faculty at Leeds, and Oxford, are doing exactly what they need to do in order to continue climbing in the rankings of UK universities. General university reputations matter, but exciting and innovative degree offerings can matter more.