The Guardian homeBy Anne Gwinnett. Oxford Brookes University's Anne Gwinnett discusses the findings of a new Distinct project survey that asked vice-chancellors about distinctiveness. Distinctiveness is another word for identity. It concerns the values you hold, the culture in which you do things and the things that you offer. For an institution, it is an important part of how you tell the people with whom you want to engage why they should want to engage with you.
However, our evidence suggests there is a "distinctiveness gap". Most vice-chancellors want their institution to be seen as distinctive and different from their competitors, but fewer than half believe that they are actually achieving this. It is not difficult to see why this has come about, but the good news is the evidence seems to suggest that for most institutions there is an answer that lies within. At the Distinct project, we recently sought to establish the views of vice-chancellors in England on distinctiveness. Responses were received from 28 VCs, including the heads of a broad range of institutions: pre- and post-1992, of varying sizes, from all mission groups and non-aligned. So the answers give us some compelling insights into the sector as a whole.
More than 80% said it was essential for their university's strategy that they were seen as distinctive by students, yet only around 40% believed that their university was regarded as clearly distinctive by students. VCs believe that most of their audiences (students, employers, partner organisations and so on) see their institution as distinctive in certain key respects. However, the basis for that claim of distinctiveness is not always clear. For example, more than 50% of HE institutions seem to believe that it is the student experience that makes them distinctive but, with so many competing on the same territory, there is limited scope. Furthermore, one in four of the VCs who claimed that their students regard them as "absolutely distinctive" were unable to pick out any attribute on which their institution was completely different from the rest.
It is easy to see how we got here as a sector. Until recently, most forces affecting universities pushed them towards homogeneity; they were expected to compete for funding and a place in the league tables based on a set of criteria common to all. While those forces continue to operate, the latest changes in the HE environment mean that there are additional, conflicting demands for institutions to find ways to differentiate themselves to attract students and resources. With increased competition, institutions will need to be able to express, clearly and convincingly, why they should be the preferred choice of prospective students, potential donors, employees of the calibre they need or partner organisations. We believe that this does not necessarily equate to a bleak picture for institutions; it is not the case that any university lacks the potential to be distinctive. Rather, our research from both within and beyond the sector tells us that any organisation can find and communicate its distinctive offer, providing it has a clear perspective on where it is now and its leadership has the commitment and skills to take on this challenge.
Next steps

• Find your unifying core. What is it about your institution that makes it special to both employees and external audiences? What is the core of why you exist and what you offer to the world that can't be found elsewhere? Why are you one institution rather than a loose confederation of departments?
• Identify and understand your key audiences. You can't be all things to all people, so prioritise and focus your resources where they will have most impact. In order to influence your key audiences you need to understand what they think of HE in general and of your institution in particular. Good quality, unbiased research is key.
• Perception is reality. People will act based on their perception – no matter how inaccurate – so, for your institution, their perceptions are your reality. Don't seek to justify or explain why they are wrong. Give them reasons to believe the things you want them to know.
• Leadership commitment is vital. Senior management need to be open to the idea that what you aspire to be is not necessarily how you are perceived. Only then will the resources and leadership needed to establish and communicate distinctiveness be forthcoming.
• Have the courage to stand out. In the words of Michael Porter: "Strategy is choosing to run a different race because it's the one you've set yourself up to win." Identify what you are really better at than those institutions which your audiences regard as your competitors, and commit to that.
• Use the Distinct project resources – tailored tools and techniques for the sector which we have developed from our research both within and beyond HE, and are available on our website.
Anne Gwinnett is project sponsor for the
Distinct project, a HEFCE-funded initiative to support universities in identifying and communicating what makes them distinctive. She is director of corporate affairs at Oxford Brookes University. The full results from Distinct's vice chancellors' survey will be published shortly at To request a copy of the results directly, please email