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News of 21.12.2017

The theme of sustainability is a popular way for higher education institutions to communicate a distinct profile

Are references to socially relevant themes suitable for describing the particular profile and strengths of a higher education institution in a way that is commonly understood? The CHE Centre for Higher Education has conducted a study to explore this question.

There are currently more than 400 higher education institutions (HEIs) in Germany, some of which have a very different focus when it comes to research or teaching. A study undertaken recently by the CHE Centre for Higher Education reveals that virtually all HEIs use similar terminology to describe themselves in their mission statements. Ulrich Müller, CHE’s Head of Policy Studies, explained: “If all higher education institutions describe themselves as being modern, innovative and flexible, then of course all profile-raising efforts will fall flat. Mission statements that contain only the usual buzzwords fail to highlight the differences between universities, and are therefore worthless as communication to the outside world.”

For this reason, HEIs increasingly draw on themes to communicate a more clearly contoured profile. Themes may then be reflected in the HEI’s name (“Eberswalde University for Sustainable Development”), in a university’s slogan (“The University of Resources”, “The University for the Information Society”) or in its mission statement (“environmental education and research”). An analysis conducted by CHE reveals patterns that show how themes are used to create distinct profiles.

Ideally, such a theme is visible as a common thread running through all areas of the HEI, from individual research projects and the specialisation of content and methods in teaching to the selection of personnel. The outcome of CHE’s analysis demonstrates that only very few HEIs in Germany utilise such systematic and stringent “horizontal thematic communication”. Representing a “story”, such communication illustrates the contribution that research and teaching make to dealing with everyday social problems in certain fields of action, i.e. social themes.

However, around one fifth of Germany’s HEIs use “vertical thematic communication”. In the process, these HEIs subsume the content of research and teaching under thematically charged headings (e.g. citizen, nature and the environment) – but they address social problems and fields of action somewhat vaguely, and are simply not embedded in an overarching narrative.

The thematic area of “sustainability” appears to be particularly suited to describing the profile of HEIs. It is the most frequently used term in the profile documents of the 399 investigated HEIs, with 21 mentions. Themes such as human rights, globalisation and digitisation are also mentioned frequently.

Thimo von Stuckrad underlined another remarkable aspect among the 74 HEIs that communicate their profile vertically. “Smaller universities find it easier to describe their activities using a thematic catchphrase. Larger universities have to fall back on rather abstract terminology – or prioritise and let key, defining aspects take centre stage in their communication,” the lead author of the study advised.

Higher education institutions’ efforts to communicate – and hence legitimise – their activities, also in everyday language, are clearly recognisable. Thimo von Stuckrad: “Communicating key research areas by tying them in with everyday phenomena is a step down from the ivory tower. This approach generates social and political acceptance of research and teaching because it establishes a reference to everyday life, and the key spheres of activity can be comprehended without having a profound knowledge of science.”


About the study:

CHE Consult was commissioned by the CHE Centre for Higher Education to examine the way in which German HEIs describe their profiles. To achieve this, a systematic analysis was undertaken of text elements, such as brochures, mission statements and slogans, produced by 399 HEIs. The publication called “Themenfelder als Profilbildungselement an deutschen Hochschulen: Trendanalyse und Themenlandkarte” (Thematic areas as an element of profile creation at German higher education institutions: trend analysis and thematic map) was written by Thimo von Stuckrad and Ronny Röwert in collaboration with Christian Berthold and Ulrich Müller.


Further Information can be found in the publication stated below.

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Email: Ulrich.Mueller@che.de

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