What’s the use in university planning?

University strategising in the days before JoJo, BoJo and Brexit was more back-patting than visionary, but what universities need now is a plan for survival, says John Cater 

April 13, 2018

Thud: a university’s strategic plan – for a decade, through to the late 2020s – lands on the doormat. Though less frequent these days, this sound is a mainstay of strategists’ entryways. 

Clocks back: it’s Easter 2008 and higher education is breezing along. Whisper it, but funding feels sufficient, politics is largely benign, there is no student number cap, the age cohort is increasing and demand – young and mature, full and fractional, national and international – is buoyant.  

There is relative certainty, and it is a good time to publish a new strategic plan. A stable sector, no Goldman Sachs, no missives from yachts in the Mediterranean retrospectively imposing student number controls, no coalition, no Michael Gove for teacher trainers, no £9,000 tuition fees, no decimation of part-time education, no (substantive) private-sector providers, no BoJo, no JoJo, no Brexit, no pensions strikes, no vice-chancellor's perks, no demand decay and no Office for Students. No problem. Hit the print button and those optimistic projections of being one of the 50 institutions in the national top 10 (or, better yet, the global 1 per cent) test the mailing list’s letterbox springs.

A worthless or a worthwhile exercise? A genuine process properly executed is of enormous value and an opportunity to engage students, staff, stakeholders, council and governors in shaping the future of their university.  But there was no linen being washed. Perhaps a gentle allusion here, maybe a weak signpost there, but plenty of hopes expressed as carefully planned outcomes, buttressed by strategic goals, operating objectives, performance measures, numerical targets. 

Clocks forward 10 years: Hefce has gone. To Ofwat and Ofgem, add OfStud. The age cohort is shrinking. Demand looks increasingly parlous and the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union and Home Office policy are impinging on research funding – and international recruitment and collaboration. A new Higher Education Review, less than a year after a new act, is in its infancy, with siren voices on all sides, a strong emphasis on (and a narrow definition of?) skills policy – and a zero-sum budget.

Much management theory has roots dating back to the 1880s and 1890s, commonly applied to manufacturing settings and focused on the US, with goal-setting featuring prominently from the 1950s onwards. Objectives, targets, measures.  

But it is now three decades since Tom Peters indicated that we have to thrive on chaos and to recognise the opportunities that uncertainty brings. To do so, we need leaders, managers, governors, staff, students and stakeholders who bring positive mind-sets – and their skills as communicators, enablers, facilitators and do-ers, to help organisations progress.  

By the 1990s Peter Drucker, one of the fathers of the Management By Objectives movement, had culture eating the croissants while strategy starved. Over the next quinquennium flexibility, fleet-footedness and – crucially – the ability to persuade and motivate others to run with you will be key ingredients of institutional success.

So, should we plan? For a predictable business driver, operating on a seven-year cycle with one overriding aim, to maximise the number of colleagues producing internationally acclaimed research, the answer is clear and unequivocal. But otherwise we might not want to commission scriptwriters, photographers, graphic designers, eulogies from institutional heads and chairs – or extended print runs.  

What should we preserve and what might we do differently? First up, vision matters: collectively generating and nurturing a shared and realisable understanding of the institution you want to work in, work with and study in, is vital. And vision must be grounded in realisable reality. The best leaders are “grounded optimists”, neither delusional, promising the earth 10 years hence, nor arch-pessimists who sap the energy and enthusiasm from all they come into contact with.  

If a vision is achievable, understood, accepted and owned, you have a basic template against which to judge all decisions, to answer the question “will this make my university stronger and better five years on?”.        

But, notwithstanding the unpredictability and the challenges ahead, it is worth penning something owned by those who care, not a marketing document and not one to thud on every doormat. And the focus may be different, not the eulogising of a future that may never happen, but a document that is absolutely explicit about what a university needs to avoid if it is to survive, gain relative advantage and – when the opportunity presents itself – prosper. What might be on that list? No demand failure, no retention crisis, no quality nor student experience failure, no regulatory nor governance failure, no resourcing and financing failure, positive labour market outcomes and – particularly pertinent at present – no failure in the collective desire of individuals across the full range of roles to work together in the interest of the university, its staff and students, and the communities they are part of.  

If this baseline is secure, if you can ensure that the bottom quartile, or Boston’s bottom left box, is not your quartile, the foundations will be there to build upon, to take opportunities as they arise. The past 10 years tell us that we do not know and cannot know precisely what those opportunities will be – and nor can we be certain of the many threats we will have to circumnavigate.  But they do tell us that the aware, the alert, the adept, the engaged, the committed, the solution-focused and the team-oriented should see their institutions survive, sustain and succeed while others may falter. 

John Cater is the vice-chancellor of Edge Hill University.

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