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Leader: Born again in West London

As it rebrands and reshapes, Thames Valley, long a byword for failure, might just be on course to outwit more august names

It was one of those phone calls that a journalist never forgets: the end of a long and busy press day, the final pages safely off to the printers, staff drifting off home (or to the pub) - then a bombshell drops. The universities' chief quality watchdog is on the line: Thames Valley University is about to be officially named as the UK's first "failing" university. It is a true "hold the front page" moment.

In contrast to the screaming national newspapers, the headline in Times Higher Education, in November 1998, was rather measured: "Thames Valley put on report". But the details of the Quality Assurance Agency's special investigation into allegations of "dumbing down" at the university were stark, and they have gone down in higher education history. The university, the QAA said, was "in a position where its academic standards and the quality of its students' experience were - and are - under threat". The institution was placed under unprecedented "special measures" to steer it through the crisis, which claimed its charismatic vice-chancellor, Mike Fitzgerald.

Thirteen years and four vice-chancellors later, TVU is reborn, with the inauguration of a new chancellor and, most eye-catchingly, a new name - the University of West London.

There was, naturally, some cynicism when TVU confirmed last year that it was to be rebranded. (There was also opposition - Brunel University, whose home is in West London, too, was not best pleased.) But jibes and scepticism aside, there was a logic to the move: in our market-sensitive age, image and brand matter. Luton, once unfairly described by a newspaper as the "worst university in Britain", has enjoyed significant success as the renamed University of Bedfordshire. And the student recruitment bounce that Birmingham City University experienced after it ditched its previous moniker, the University of Central England, helped earn it a Times Higher Education Leadership and Management Award in 2009.

Of course, a mere facelift will never be enough to effect a real turnaround. As we discuss in our cover feature, TVU has actually changed location to justify the more lofty-sounding name and has undergone a root-and-branch restructure. It has, in the words of its current vice-chancellor, Peter John, "downsized, reshaped and relocated".

Given the unpredictability of what lies ahead as a more variable tuition fee regime comes into play in 2012, perhaps West London's most significant action has been to identify and claim a clear niche - "employer-facing" education. It has unashamedly stuck to what it does best: serving up vocational courses, directly linked to immediate graduate employment, to a predominantly mature, part-time student population. This may not fit everyone's image of a university, but it seems a canny move to blaze a distinct path in a crowded sector.

After having been on the funding council's financial "at higher risk" list for the past 12 years, the university expects to record a small surplus this autumn. Amid warnings this week from consultants Parthenon that too many English universities have spread themselves too thinly, how ironic it is to think that one of the sector's most notoriously troubled institutions may now be among the better-placed to find its way in the dog-eat-dog world of variable fees, withdrawn state support for teaching and market forces.

phil.baty@tsleducation.com.

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