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A major 'strategy fest' hits Higher Education

Justin Shaw, Managing Director Communications Management

Sitting at my desk just now, I’ve just been ‘googling’ what comes up when you search for “universities” and “strategies” (because that’s the kind of thing I am interested in!) – and I was amazed to see just how many of our universities are launching new long-term strategies this year.

Durham, Dundee, Aberystwyth, Greenwich, Surrey, Swansea, Liverpool John Moores, Sheffield Hallam – are among those universities working on their new ‘corporate’ strategies (or about to announce them).

In such a time of turbulence and structural change (post-Brexit impacts, HE Bill with TEF, demographic changes affecting undergraduate applications, demands for school involvement and delivering apprenticeships) it certainly is a period for deep reflection, analysis and for reviewing and refining trajectories.

In addition: estimates are showing about a quarter of UK universities have appointed new vice-chancellors in the last 24 months (partly driven by pension changes) – and so there is an inevitable re-assessment of directions in order to bring a fresh injection of vigour and ambition.  Aberystwyth, Cumbria and Edinburgh are those that have recently announced new leaders.

Against this backdrop, Communications Management’s associate strategist, Lal Tawney, has been investigating the whole process of strategy formation in universities. Lal’s been involved with many institutions over the years (including The Open University and London South Bank University) and, like me, is a keen observer of strategy models, methods and techniques being adopted by the sector.

Over the last few weeks he has been interviewing many different universities to identify how their strategies are put together, what they contain (and don’t), how people are engaged in the process, what form the outputs take and so on.

In summary, Lal’s work is showing strong degrees of commonality – with most universities adopting similar approaches and formats. Most strategies are for five years (UCL’s strategy to 2034 –a 20 year timespan! – is one particular exception), are presented in “glossy” on screen and printed/printable formats (each lasting for 20 pages) and use words/phrases such as “transformation” “discovery” and “meeting global challenges”.

At a time when the Government is driving stronger choice and competition – the strategic directions of our universities don’t actually appear to be that different. As one vice-chancellor has said: “that’s because universities are universities” (their purposes are the same and they operate in the same way!).

This comes at a time when observers are keenly pushing universities to be different to address their offer, especially for undergraduates. The Observer’s Chief Leader Writer, Sonia Sodha, has been especially ‘vocal’ on this issue recently calling for “our arrogant universities” to “embrace innovation”.

The outcome of Lal’s analysis is now available as a short summary report and can be accessed here University strategy report 2017 – please do send me your thoughts on this when you’ve had the chance to go through it: you can email me at justin@communicationsmanagement.co.uk

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