The future for higher education: turbulence, growth and wicked issues

Turbulence, growth and wicked issues
Turbulent waters lie ahead for the sector thanks to a storm of change. Andy Shenstone, director of consultancy and business development at the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, looks at the key challenges higher education leaders face this year, and offers some advice for teams looking to steer a calmer course.

Setting out long-term plans in the face of sector-wide upheaval is a challenge for every executive team with which we are working and it is clear that many of the assumptions underpinning institutional strategies have to be revisited, even if they were written as recently as 12 months ago.

The complex interaction between changing government policy, the new regulatory environment (and, for Scotland, the new governance environment and student number controls), Brexit, immigration policy, REF, TEF, pensions and national demographics, to name but a few meta factors, is demanding continuous and close assessment by executive teams.

Appraise then reconfigure to succeed

A core assumption that has underpinned many institutional strategies was an ambition for absolute ‘growth’ in student numbers. Clearly some institutions will grow on these terms, (Bristol and Coventry are two notable examples) but the headwinds that must be overcome to achieve this are significant. In both the examples cited above growth has been allied to a much broader (and bolder) reconfiguration of the institution’s strategy. Aiming for growth without making such a fundamental reappraisal has repeatedly been shown as highly unlikely to succeed.

An effective strategy needs to speak to delivering a sustainable and resilient outcome that is aligned with the institution’s educational character, culture and risk appetite. This might mean managed growth in certain areas, a rebalancing of the portfolio or a significant new venture.

But absolute growth and institutional sustainability should not be conflated. For some institutions, a managed reduction in scale and breadth in provision is both a legitimate and necessary course to take and should release resources to drive up quality and improve learning outcomes (London Metropolitan’s plans for moving to a single campus is one example).

This speaks to one of the sector’s ‘wicked issues’ – the fundamental resilience of an institution’s portfolio. There is now a lot more attention being given to this by executives. Yet it remains an issue of such sensitivity that it is not always addressed with the objectivity it demands and some governing bodies remain under-equipped to provide the necessary assurance on this key topic. Probing sometimes long-term, systemic instances of weak performance is crucial, as is establishing clear plans for their resolution.

This highlights the importance of being clear about where you are starting from and why the status quo is unacceptable.  A historic weakness in many universities, albeit one that is being gradually overcome, has been the use of timely information to establish a shared understanding of current and projected performance.

Use insight more than hindsight

Our experience has been that too much emphasis has been placed on making use of analysis that explains what has already happened – when it’s evidently too late to do anything about the issues being examined. Leaders need information that assists them in making sense of a complex world and the direction of travel the institution is likely to take.

Higher education is now placing much greater emphasis on developing capabilities that can deliver genuine insight into projected performance – and in a world where old assumptions are dying hard, this is very much needed.

It’s one thing to define the challenges but how is the Leadership Foundation supporting institutions in dealing with them? As a dedicated higher education specialist agency, one of our distinctive qualities is the sheer breadth and depth of experience which means we understand both the fundamentals of higher education and ‘what works’ when it comes to devising real world solutions.

Allying this experience to an understanding of institutional context is pivotal. Size is but one factor, to be put alongside mission, the balance of research and teaching, the shape (and health) of the overall portfolio and underlying resilience. Superseding everything is the distinctive educational character of the institution, which speaks to its core purpose, values and ethos.

In shaping our interaction, we focus upon the value we must add and the outcomes we must deliver. What must a successful intervention look and feel like to the university’s executive? How will they recognise it and what form must it take? What benefits are they seeking from our involvement? What skills and capabilities do they require of our team?

Prepare for the future

In giving any form of advice we work through a process of co-design and solution development and the support we provide takes a wide variety of forms. In the last few months this has included facilitating executive and or governing body strategic planning events, acting as an external ‘critical friend’ as new strategies are being created, through to wider evaluations of fundamental institutional operating models like shared services and institutional mergers.

By way of some brief examples, we have recently worked with a pre-1992 university in reviewing its requirements for enhancing student insight and analytics; with a small and specialist provider to conduct a review of its institutional strategy; and with an ancient Scottish university to explore the opportunities offered by shared services.

Current engagements include a review of research management for a leading Russell Group university, support to a pre-1992 institution in its development of its requirements for a new student system, and multiple governance effectiveness reviews for HEIs across the country.

What they have in common is that all are doing their utmost to ensure they’re as equipped as possible for the uncertainty ahead.

Visit the Leadership Foundation’s website for more information on their consultancy work.

Andy Shenstone
Director of consultancy and business development, Leadership Foundation for Higher Education