This summer saw ULIP CEO Tim Gore receive his doctorate after almost ten years of work. The thesis, entitled ‘Being Distinctive: University Market Development Strategies Away From Home’, offers a number of new insights for the higher education sector. It was a pleasure to celebrate Tim’s success alongside that of ULIP’s undergraduate and postgraduate students at this year’s graduation ceremony. To mark the occasion, we spoke to Tim about the highs and lows of the PhD process and how it feels to have finally finished.
Congratulations, Dr Gore!
Thank you very much!
How long have you been working on your doctorate?
I started my doctorate in 2007 – I was in India at the time. I submitted it in May 2016 but it wasn’t finalised until early 2017 – so pretty much a full ten years!
How do you feel on finally finishing your thesis?
What was the most remarkable thing that you observed in the course of your research?
There were several very interesting outcomes during the research – one of them was happenstance – major strategic developments such as the establishment of campuses in China and Malaysia depended largely on one or two key relationships, through alumni or staff contacts – that just happened to make possible a very difficult project and these were rarely planned but came about by chance. Another thing that I found very interesting was that despite the size and resources that many universities have they have very limited capacity to launch major new projects and embarking on a new partnership in Asia for example often meant that all other big projects would have to wait. This often boiled down to the lack of senior leadership time which creates a major bottle-neck in new developments.
Did your research bring to light anything that surprised you?
I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised that ultimately, despite glossy published strategy statements, universities are often not actually very strategic. The main reason for this seems to be the nature of universities as complex and loosely organised organisations. I was surprised that the staff charged with creating and implementing strategy spent very little of their time on outward focussed activity such as partnership building and a very large amount on inward focussed information sharing, encouraging and nurturing and concensus building.
What have been the high and low points of the PhD process?
I wasn’t a very good undergraduate student and gradually realised that I was best suited to learning on my own and at my own pace. I did my two masters successfully at a distance and enjoyed the process. I embarked on the DBA with a promise to myself that I would not let the process be a cause of stress. I very much enjoy learning and took my time over the degree. The initial taught part of the degree took place over 4 two-week residentials in Bath – these were excellent and built a sense of fellowship with other students that lasts past the degree itself. I also enjoyed preparing my thesis and spent a year studying the epistemology and philosophy of knowledge. I had difficulties with my supervisors who I found to be unresponsive and unhelpful in the early years and it was only when a new Director of Studies took over 4 years ago that this improved and he helped me find a better and more responsive supervisor. The only time of genuine stress was the final process of writing up the changes and getting them accepted after the viva – for some reason I found this very stressful and was much relieved when the final changes were accepted.
Do you have any publication plans for your thesis?
One of the strengths of the DBA was that the initial taught phase required us to produce four 8,000 publishable papers on a range of topics (they didn’t have to actually be published but should be of peer-reviewable quality). I enjoyed this process very much and got three of these papers published. This encouraged me to play a more active role in the sector and I gave many papers at conferences and published quite a number of papers of different types while I was experimenting with my theoretical approach – this allowed me to try out ideas and develop my thinking as the doctorate progressed. Once I had submitted, I wrote a paper summarising my results in a more approachable form for the International Association of Universities, as it happened, this was published before my final changes were approved.
What are your next research questions?
I struggled over a long period to find theoretical approaches in the strategic literature that applied well in the world of universities. With the combination of Resource Based Theory and Dynamic Capabilities Theory I feel that I have a set of theoretical tools that works well in the context of universities and will be looking to develop the application of this approach. I will have my first chance in October when I will take part in a strategic audit of a Welsh University’s international work and will be interested to see how the theory helps understand and engage with the university.