A mission statement defines in a paragraph or so any entity’s reason for existence. It embodies its philosophies, goals, ambitions and mores. Any entity that attempts to operate without a mission statement runs the risk of wandering through the world without having the ability to verify that it is on its intended course.1
Without a mission statement (or a statement/set of principles which conforms to this definition but which may be known as something else), the organisation risks wandering ‘off mission’ and wasting time and resources trying to achieve things which are at best peripheral and at worst irrelevant to the objectives it should be trying to achieve.
Some may argue that the mission for all further and higher education institutions is simple and self-evident: to provide good quality teaching and learning for its students and to conduct valuable research. But already the flaws in this simplistic response are evident. Not every institution pursues an active research agenda (particularly in further education), whereas for others it represents the focal point of their international reputation and one of their main streams of income.
Likewise, although hopefully all institutions would place a high value on teaching and learning, their approach to conducting this may differ markedly: whereas some institutions may view their role as being to nurture and develop academic excellence, others may consider it their priority to equip students with the vocational skills and training required to prepare them for the job market.
In many respects, the mission statement reflects the ultimate distillation of the strategic activity of the institution. If the course of action being considered doesn’t seem to conform to the mission statement, serious questions should be asked about whether this is really something that the institution should be involved with. If, after due consideration, the answer is still ‘yes’ it may well be that your mission statement should be updated to reflect this new change of direction or expansion of remit, but given the ‘high-level’ nature of mission statements it stands to reason that such changes will rarely be necessary (perhaps once or twice a decade) – any more than this and it suggests that your mission statement is defined at too detailed and low a level.
The rise to prominence of the ‘business and community engagement’ (BCE) agenda as a ‘third stream’ of institutional activity is a good example of the kind of major shift in policy and remit which may have required an amendment to some institutional mission statements in recent years.
Example mission statements
We aspire to be a dynamic, global, enterprising university. We will work in partnership with external organisations through our research and engage our students as partners in a community of learning.
To contribute to society through the pursuit of education, learning, and research at the highest international levels of excellence.
University of Cambridge
To advance and diffuse knowledge, wisdom and understanding by teaching and research and by the example and influence of its corporate life
We have a simple mission, “Success for our Students”, and do everything possible to ensure that you receive the very best education and training.
Herefordshire College of Technology
Each of the above examples say something specific about the institution in question and avoid meaningless platitudes by not only stating what it is that they strive to achieve but how they intend to achieve it. It is this that gives each its distinctiveness and ties it specifically to the institution in question.
An interesting exercise might be to separate the statements from the institutions and to determine how easy you feel it would be to correctly marry them up given what you know about each institution. When reviewing or redefining your own mission statement this exercise can be taken a step further by including your own mission statement along with these examples and asking colleagues or focus groups to choose which they feel is most representative of your institution. If few successfully manage to recognise your institution from your mission statement this may indicate that it does not sufficiently capture the essence of your organisation.