Higher education sector needs ‘new level of ambition’ to achieve sustainability

Embracing change can be difficult but it is essential for universities to ensure long-term sustainability

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15 Jan 2024
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Nous Group session at THE Campus Live UK&IE 2023
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The higher education sector needs to change to ensure a long-term sustainable future, said Julie Mercer, principal at Nous Group, during a session at the 2023 THE Campus Live UK&IE event, held in collaboration with Nous Group. “The challenges that [universities] face today are unprecedented, both in scale and volume. It requires a new level of ambition and new ways of thinking about how to solve problems.”

Mercer discussed the fall in domestic UK enrolments and its declining attractiveness as an international academic destination, compounded by economic inflation and troubled industrial relations. The academics and university leaders in the audience concurred this has had an effect on their institutions and added that factors such as low staff morale, a lack of agility and universities’ outdated business models also hold back the growth of the academic sector.

“It comes down to service design, operating model and your business model,” Mercer said. She added that institutions that have a ‘one-university approach’, especially in professional services, tend to be more efficient and demonstrate a higher degree of service effectiveness. She also noted that while technology needs to be part of the conversation, “it’s not all of the conversation”.

“Change is hard,” said Colm Harmon, vice-principal of students at the University of Edinburgh. “It’s hard for all organisations, but it is particularly difficult for universities.” His university has initiated a curriculum transformation programme and scrapped its personal tutor model. “The word ‘personal tutor’ no longer exists at Edinburgh, and I think this worked because of good work done in the background to build and evolve a model we could get behind,” Harmon said. He added that it was important to have a clear vision of what needed to be done but also allow for an appropriate level of local flexibility that gave different units room to experiment with ideas.

Clive Winters, chief of staff at Coventry University, said that institutions “need to meet students and communities where they are, rather than where we wish they would be”. He added that Coventry University has undergone a decade of transformation, focusing its attention on delivering education in place, offering specialisms and reflecting the diversity of the student body. “There’s a view that you might want to do 100 per cent of everything you want to achieve in one shot,” said Winters. “If you scale or change, you have confidence from a governance perspective and you see the benefits being realised in that change.”

Richard Calvert, deputy vice-chancellor for strategy and operations at Sheffield Hallam University, spoke about the professional service changes underway at the university and the challenges of coping with change. “Lots of us feel like we’re driving juggernauts,” said Calvert. “We were siloed functionally, were short-term in our thinking and planning, and very poor at problem resolution.”

To be more efficient, Sheffield Hallam University centralised its professional service teams before re-embedding them in their faculties. The plan’s success hinged on “not just changing the model but understanding why the models had to change and what the benefits were from that”, Calvert said. To do that, institutions need to bring their staff with them on the journey, he concluded.

The panel:

  • Julie Mercer, principal, Nous Group
  • Richard Calvert, deputy vice-chancellor of strategy and operations, Sheffield Hallam University
  • Colm Harmon, vice-principal of students, University of Edinburgh
  • Clive Winters, chief of staff, Coventry University

Find out more about Nous Group.

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