This article is more than 6 years old

Finding your future focus

Is your university strategy fit for the future? It depends which future, explains Simon Hooton.
This article is more than 6 years old

Simon Hooton is Director of Ash Futures

During the 1990s and 2000s, it was a standing joke in the HE sector that everyone’s mission statement was a permutation of the same stock phrases. These phrases changed over time as new fashions arose, but by and large their uniformity persisted. This has started to change a little, not least because the sector has begun to recognise the diversity of specialist and alternative providers. Yet there is still not the differentiation in the sector that an impartial observer may have predicted 10 or so years ago when market forces first began to creep into the sector. Increasing regulation has undoubtedly been a countervailing force here.

There is still a chance, however, that this differentiation could take place – especially if the UK sector finds itself squeezed within one of the future scenarios we set out in a previous blog

Futures thinking

At a Round Table convened by Wonkhe earlier this year, a group of strategists, planners and thought leaders came together to look at what the future might hold and how the HE sector could respond.

During the conversation, a number of embryonic new future focuses were discussed, inspired by the trends analysis we had just seen but also arising from the frustrations that were felt around the room. In fact many felt that universities could (and should) be more bold and innovative even now, building on smaller pockets of practice seen around the country. Most participants had also been prompted to re-evaluate their ideas in the light of the shocking anti-expert sentiment surfaced during the Brexit debate.

Inspired by this conversation, and building on some work we did a few years ago on a new way to segment universities, I began to imagine what different beasts we might find within the higher education sector in twenty years’ time. My starting point was that universities will need to differentiate in order to have a strong and understandable brand in both UK and international markets.

Four archetypes

The Agile University has up-ended its power structure and has become a place of entirely student-led learning, drawing on data and analytics for real-time feedback. Unashamedly viewing itself as part of the experience economy, it makes smart use of AI without compromising on quality staff-student contact time. It measures its own performance on student outcomes, not inputs. While pushing the frontiers of pedagogic research, the Agile University is also likely to excel in applied research and innovation, its efficient and highly connected processes giving it a competitive edge over more traditional institutions.

The Consultant University fully understands the needs of the wider organisational world and is prepared to re-engineer its own processes wholesale to meet them. Students who come straight from school will leave fully prepared for the current and future labour market, and probably with a job secured or a developing enterprise of their own. However, the largest part of its operation will be meeting the needs of its organisational clients who are able to buy the research, innovation, expert advice and employee upskilling that they need, at a time and in a way that they need them. Resembling a large, international consultancy firm with highly specialist divisions, the Consultant University trades on its knowledge assets, assuring measurable benefits for all its clients and outstanding professional experience for its students.

The Community University identifies strongly with the community that surrounds it and operates in the manner of a very large social enterprise. Taking itself firmly and explicitly out of the race for national and international status, it exists to improve the quality of life and outcomes for local people and businesses, and to champion them on the national stage. The Community University does not do this alone, but collaborates closely with its students and local organisations both large and small. It works hard to understand and mitigate power imbalances in such relationships, to surface and recognise different agendas, and to work towards very clear shared goals.

The Influencer University wants to tackle the big issues that affect the country and the world. Its research and teaching portfolio has a strong and coherent sense of mission and it collaborates with those who are in a position to make change happen. As a result, the Influencer University is international in perspective, collaborative in character and highly influential. It is able to articulate the value of universities to UK government on its own terms. Indeed it is likely to be supplying valuable data to government departments in the UK and elsewhere to support policy development. The Influencer University may have become very focused about its disciplinary scope, but what it has lost in breadth it has more than made up for in depth.

Archetypes and scenarios

These new university species are of course archetypes, but some current universities may recognise aspects of themselves in the above narratives. All of these missions already exist somewhere within the sector; here, they have just been taken to their logical conclusion. Challenged by new competition at home and abroad, faced with new forms of delivery and confronted by changing stakeholder expectations, universities will need to make difficult, but clear, choices about how they can carve out a viable future in a more fractured and competitive higher education landscape. They will need to find their particular niche in a rapidly changing world as only a few can continue to be all things to all people.

There are, of course, a range of different possible futures and some of these archetypes will thrive more under certain scenarios than others.  The trick will be to know which future is likely to provide the right environment for which type of university mission. Some of the new university types outlined here are much more likely under one scenario than the others.

So, what does this have to do with the here and now? Well these are a few questions to ponder when thinking about your own institution’s future:

  • How likely do you think it is that these new missions will arise?
  • What are the implications, positive and negative, of these new institutional missions arising in the UK?
  • Are you already trying to move towards one or more of these? What external conditions and internal changes would really make this fly?

If this all feels too speculative, here’s one final question. Given the social, political, economic and technology trends we see today, how well will your existing university mission serve you in ten years’ time?

If you’d like an opportunity to explore some of these ideas further, please join our World Café session at Wonkfest in November.

There’s more information about our HE Futures series here.

3 responses to “Finding your future focus

  1. No mention of values and principles! You need to be clear about yourself before you can influence your environment whatever that may be, e.g. students, staff, community, businesses ….

  2. Yes, Peter, values and principles are essential and might (for example) be fitted into that second question at the end of Simon’s article.

    This particular aspect of futures thinking is not, however, about how you can influence your environment – but about how external factors outside your control might influence your ability to deliver your strategy. As you note in your (excellent!) strategic plan, universities must anticipate and respond to changes within the environment to ensure their objectives remain achievable. Scenario thinking is one way to help universities do this – by building models of the future based upon existing and observable trends. The models offer a strategic sandpit for testing how to respond to a range of possible future outcomes.

  3. Thought-provoking stuff.

    Great to see scenario-modelling used more widely; it can play a robust but low-risk approach in helping providers’ to develop alternative futures within their own institutional contexts. As Simon’s blog indicates, it can be an insightful methodology for accessing readiness for change.

    For those especially interested in the types of students whom such highly differentiated HE providers might attract, try accessing the Getting animated about Flexible Learning video and related toolkit ( The HEA-funded project focusses on four contrasting scenarios of ‘would-be’ higher education institutions and uses scenario-planning to help develop providers’ critical understanding of institutional assumptions at all levels, enabling them to start scoping needs, infrastructure and pedagogical shifts.

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