The pursuit of a distinctive university strategy

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If you pick a university strategy at random, you’re likely to be faced by a narrow set of aims. Universities will teach, research and they’ll innovate. They’ll try to do all of this better than they have done before while being financially sustainable, investing in the estate and contributing to their local, regional, national and international communities.

Run those strategies through plagiarism detection software, and there’s likely to be some significant overlap. And that’s probably to be expected: our universities share the same broad aims.

What’s important about strategy, however, is how the institution plans to meet those aims, and where it’s going to focus its energies.

I have a simple test when it comes to looking at strategies, one you can try yourself. Ask whether the opposite of any given statement would be ridiculous: if it would, don’t bother saying it. Doing this should promote the kind of differentiation that the higher education sector needs. Not every institution can have, or needs, a comprehensive A-to-Z portfolio of programmes to be attractive to applicants.

Disruption to the higher education sector is coming from many sources including new entrants, apprenticeships, the role of technology and a demographic dip for 18 years-olds. These challenges are changing the landscape of the sector, and it may be time to think of strategies which provide the differentiation needed in these market conditions. That might mean making a small number of ‘big bets’ rather than a larger number of more minor tweaks. It may be time for institutions to think about its raison d’être and to change its approach. Is it time to be more, or less, international/regional? Or to shape the portfolio towards vocational areas over traditional academic subjects?

Actions speak louder than words

It should be possible to put university strategies into action. That sounds obvious, but it’s often missing. It should be possible, and practical, for the goals to be achieved. There’s also room for ambition, and the opportunity to make choices about what not to do as well as where to focus. You can’t invest in everything. Fundamentally, you don’t have to do all the things you’ve always done, in the way you’ve always done them.

There’s a balance to be struck between ambition and realism. It’s not necessarily a problem to be ambitious – aspiration is important – but, while they’re inextricably interwoven, vision and strategy have different roles to play. Vision has the luxury and freedom to ignore some day-to-day practicalities. Strategy must be more introspective, asking more challenging questions. Do you have the necessary capacity, capability and appetite to achieve what you’re setting out to do? And, if you don’t, what are you going to do about it?

If you’re developing a strategy, have you thought in detail about whether it will deliver financial sustainability? How will you improve the student experience? Or your research quality? Or your capacity for knowledge transfer and innovation? And then there are the implementation questions: have you thought about the changes required to facilitate your strategy? And if you need to change culture, how are you going to do that?

Change is going to come

UK higher education has enjoyed a fairly benign environment in recent years. But it’s time for governing bodies to up their game when it comes to the development of strategy and oversight of implementation. The prospect of major changes for universities needs to be recognised, but also that effecting change within institutions isn’t easy. Bringing hearts and minds along with the vision is difficult, and culture change takes time.

Considering the importance of implementation, it’s an area where governors can make a meaningful contribution. That can be through advice, drawing on their experiences and in helping to shape change programmes. At KPMG, we’ve seen them bring their expertise to bear – amongst other areas – in human resources, commercial approaches, regional industry and sector intelligence. We’ve seen great examples of governors sharing their expertise in transformational change. All universities are managing one or another change programme already, and there are probably more to come. How involved will governors be in providing the necessary critical oversight?

Designing a good strategy isn’t easy. Seeing it through is harder still. To start with, you need to accept the role of strategy – high-quality strategy – in the business of the university. But also accept that the strategy document isn’t an end in itself. You need to have an appropriate level of challenge and critical engagement with the difficult questions in the development of strategy and throughout its implementation. This has always been the case, but it’s now more important than ever before, and you need to apply the full breadth of talents to see the process through.

2 thoughts on “The pursuit of a distinctive university strategy”

  1. dpattie says:

    Higher Education is not a market.

  2. Stuart Harvey says:

    Consultant reports at the cost of £10ks would of course never fail a plagiarism test either of course. Or indeed to find mistakes such as the name of another institution in the report provided and paid for by your own institution.

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