In the UK Higher Education sector talk of specialisation is in the air.

In June results were released of the pilot study for U-Multirank, the European Commission funded new universities benchmarking tool. Contending that existing rankings are too exclusively orientated towards research, it instead aims to make comparisons based on the stated interests and priorities of its users, thereby placing an explicit emphasis on diversification.

Meanwhile, the authors of the University of Plymouth’s HEFCE funded Enterprising Universities Project have argued that the marketised nature of the sector means that institutions will need to differentiate themselves by focusing on what makes them distinctive. Those that offer popular courses will have to do so ‘vertically’ – via league table positions or differential fees – but universities that move into emerging territory can do so ‘horizontally’ – by offering courses or experiences not available elsewhere.

And now the release of the HE white paper includes incentives that seem likely to push some post-92 universities down the path of boutique education.

But this is not the first time ‘specialisation’ has been seen as the answer for troubled British universities. At the start of the twentieth century it was also held up by some as a solution to a number of issues that seem strangely familiar.

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