Review: HE Strategy and Planning – A Professional Guide

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While it’s unlikely to top the summer bestseller lists any time soon, the new guide to strategic planning in higher education might be the wonkiest of holiday reading.

The book is the product of a crack team of planners, brought together by HESPA exec member and University of Sheffield planner, Tony Strike. The backdrop to the book is the shifting sands of the sector, and the impact on the planner’s role. As Durham University’s John Pritchard puts it:

“Profound changes driven by increased competition, unforeseen political events, funding pressures and globalisation are unfolding across the international higher education sector… Strategic planners have a unique opportunity to position themselves as essential partners, advisors and facilitators in the process of change…”

It’s important to see this book as a guide to the work of planners, more than it is about the functions of strategy and planning. This is a practitioner’s guide in which you’ll find contributors from across a range of universities alongside chapters from sector figures including research policy guru James Wilsdon and HESA’s Andy Youell. With a strong Russell Group thread, the book will be particularly useful to you if you’re running a large research-intensive university.

Geekin’ out

If you’ve worked in and around universities, you’re probably award of planning rounds and heard terms like TRAC (Transparent Approach to Costing), RAMs/WAMs (Resource/Workload Allocation Models) and various other acronyms from the planners’ lexicon. This book has provided a background I wish I’d had when working with planners, but in a roles where I didn’t know the details of the work they do. I’ve enjoyed this book for fascinating contributions like the chapter by the University of Aberystwyth’s Lucy Hodson on student number planning which includes the changes year-by-year which affect recruitment and throw out any notion of developing ‘rules’ which will hold across cycles.

It wouldn’t surprise me if many readers turn straight to the chapter on rankings and benchmarking. Seen as one of the planner’s darker arts, there may be many who are keen to see just how it’s possible to game the league tables. Sadly there isn’t a magic formula here, but there is a useful commentary on the history and utility of benchmarking institutional performance.

One of the curious features of the book is what seems like a limited range of reference points – though much of what’s recorded is from the authors’ own work. Michael Shattock’s Managing Successful Universities is referenced multiple times, which could be seen as a demonstration that there isn’t an extensive literature on how universities are, or should be, run. In that context, this new book makes a valuable contribution to the bookshelf.

What’s missing?

Given the turbulence in the HE sector, it would seem prudent for planners (and staff across universities) to hone their skills in managing contraction well. How is it best to close programmes, subject areas, campuses? Saying this out loud isn’t the same as wanting it to happen. But burying your head in the sand doesn’t cut it: it may be time to take steps to minimise the negative effects on students and staff, and good strategic planning will be an essential component of that effective management.

It might also be timely to think about how to manage mergers and acquisitions. Can we learn from the mergers of the past, both successful and less-so? And what about examples of building group structures: how does planning work across a combined HE, FE and school(s) organisation? There will probably be more scope for creativity in strategic planning than there has been in the past. Planners will need to find ways of embracing that creativity, trying the find the opportunity in the policy noise.

Verdict

I’ve had the pleasure of reading the (£90) hardback copy. It would probably be wise to invest, or ask your library to invest if you’re in university, in the e-book as a searchable version could be particularly handy. There are, as you’d expect for a snapshot of this point in time, numerous references to TEF, the HE Bill and other hot topics. These seem current now but will probably feel quickly dated in a few months’ or years’ time as the debate moves on. There’s a gap which the Office for Students should fill, but where the details of the OfS’s implications for planners aren’t yet known. These are challenges which can be overcome through future editions, and an ongoing commitment to describing and analysing the issues. I hope that the book isn’t seen as an endpoint, but as a reference document to which more is added.

It’s not just planners who’ll benefit from reading this book (it’s probably the experienced practitioners who will benefit least, but should still find it interesting); governors and university leaders, academic and professional, should take a look too. But bear in mind that the challenges universities face in the future may need different responses from those of the past: there is more to be said, updates to make, and emergent areas where the chapters haven’t been written yet.

Higher Education Strategy and Planning – A Professional Guide, edited by Tony Strike, is published by Routledge and available to order here.

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