Talking leadership 35: Susan Lea on securing financial sustainability

The University of Hull vice-chancellor explains how she simultaneously reduced costs and improved academic performance at the formerly under-threat institution

七月 19, 2022
Susan Lea
Source: University of Hull

When Susan Lea became vice-chancellor of the University of Hull in 2017, she saw an institution that might not exist in the near future.

“We were at a time when government was talking about universities going to the wall, and indeed, we were fearful that that could have been the outcome for our university,” she says.

Hull was operating in a landscape of “increased competition and marketisation” in the wake of the trebling of tuition fees in 2012, and it “perhaps had not been quite as rigorous as it might have been in its horizon-scanning, in its anticipation of the challenges that that might bring to a university like Hull”, she says. Student recruitment was falling year-on-year while costs were rising.

However, Lea, who had previously held senior leadership roles at the University of Greenwich and at King’s College London, also saw an institution with immense potential that “played a very strong role in its place”. And she believed she had what it took to turn its fortunes around.

A two-year transformation

In 2018, Lea embarked on a sweeping two-year transformation programme that had two clear objectives: to make the institution financially viable and sustainable and to enhance its academic performance.

“Doing both of those things simultaneously is not easy,” she says.

The university needed to remove £26 million from its operating cost base over two years. It embarked on a large voluntary exit scheme, which resulted in more than 400 members of staff leaving; it shut its provision of modern languages; and it terminated several academic programmes.

It also developed a culture of “financial discipline and control” by ensuring that the whole university community understood how the business worked financially.

To grow income, Hull sought to reverse the trends it had seen in student recruitment and retention. When Lea took over as leader, the university was heavily reliant on domestic undergraduates; she focused on expanding the number of international students and postgraduate taught students, as well as introducing apprenticeships.

She also embarked on an initiative to transform existing academic programmes, to ensure that they were “contemporary, exciting and high value for students” and had strong graduate employability outcomes.

“Our philosophy all the way through the transformation was: investing in strength and opportunity, and divesting from weakness and poor performance,” she says.

“You can’t do this kind of transformation by salami-slicing bits off. It has to be a wholescale institution-wide reset of the institution.”

Lea admits that work on financial viability and sustainability is sometimes devolved to the university’s finance director, but she believes that it is something that must be led by the vice-chancellor.

“When you’re facing these kinds of challenges, you have to lead it from the front,” she says. “Often there is a lot of scepticism; people always say they need more resource in order to achieve positive change in terms of academic excellence. And I think what we’ve shown here is that staff have done an incredible job of both taking the cost reductions and improving the performance of the university and the reputation and profile.”

Bringing staff on side

Before the changes were introduced, Lea – a community psychologist by training – spoke to staff, students and external stakeholders “about the external landscape and the challenges that we were facing” as well as outlining “where we needed to get to”. She says it was important that the overhaul “wasn’t something that was being done to them, because we needed people to come along with us on that journey”.

“I don’t believe that you’ll get the level of change that we’ve seen at Hull, which is huge, without that full-scale commitment of staff and students who understand and appreciate where you’re trying to get to and how important it is to get there,” she says.

“These were things that were vital for the future success of our university, and without reducing our costs, the university may well not be there in the future.”

Lea was also keen to ensure that the redundancy process was handled sensitively; Hull retrained and reskilled staff and worked with local organisations to help employees find new jobs.

Just as the two-year transformation programme was coming to an end, the Covid-19 pandemic hit. One might view the timing of such a huge global crisis as particularly unfortunate for Hull, but Lea says staff were well equipped to handle the challenge.

“One of the things that staff said to me was that they had learned through transformation to be resilient, agile, flexible and responsive,” she says.

Lea says the programme has been a success based on a number of metrics.

The university achieved the £26 million saving, and last year it “had the best financial outturn we have had in seven years, despite the pandemic”.

Hull was previously below the sector mean for student satisfaction, based on student surveys; it is now above the sector mean among all cohorts.

It has also risen about 50 places over a three-year period in the Times and Guardian domestic university league tables; it now ranks just outside the top 50 in both lists. It also ranks joint 55th in the latest Research Excellence Framework, up from joint 72nd in 2014.

Meanwhile, in May, the university announced that it had secured £86 million in private placement funding to invest in sustainable facilities and infrastructure. Hull has a target to become a carbon neutral campus by 2027.

“Financially, we’ve gone from an immensely challenging position to attracting investor confidence in a very short space of time,” Lea says.

And from an institutional culture perspective, Lea believes that “real pride” has been restored at Hull.

New leadership

After the transformation programme, Lea embarked on creating Strategy 2030 – “our hopeful and positive strategy”.

However, she won’t be around to see it come to fruition; she will be stepping down as vice-chancellor next month.

“I came to Hull because I saw a wonderful university that frankly needed a bit of help, and I was hopeful that I could work with others to achieve that transformation and that turnaround. We’ve done that. We have this amazing Strategy 2030, which staff and students are very bought into, and for me, having delivered what I came to do, it really is the right time to step aside,” she says.

“The staff and students own Strategy 2030; it’s not my strategy – it’s the university’s strategy.”

Lea says the biggest lesson she has learned during her leadership of Hull is to be “absolutely honest and realistic about the challenges the university faces and what’s happening internally”.

Her immediate plans are unclear; she will “take a short break, and do some writing and reflecting”. But she is keen to stay in the higher education sector.

“I believe fervently in the role of universities in terms of transforming individual lives and positively impacting society. I’ve not lost that passion and ambition for higher education at all,” she says.

Quick facts

Born: Cape Town, South Africa

Academic qualifications: BSocSci in psychology and sociology, BA in clinical psychology and MA in community psychology from the University of Cape Town; PhD in psychology from Loughborough University

Lives with: Her partner and pets

Academic hero: Activist Neville Alexander. “I was privileged to be taught by him as a young undergraduate and was hugely inspired by his passion, his values and activism, and his towering intellect.”

This is part of our “Talking leadership” series of 50 interviews over 50 weeks with the people running the world’s top universities about how they solve common strategic issues and implement change. Follow the series here.



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Reader's comments (2)

This looks like a major success for Hull and a possible blueprint for other institutions in similar positions to Hull in 2016. I wonder what role the University Governors / trustees played in the transformation? As indicated above, it is essential that Vice Chancellors have the right financial skills as well as an academic background. It is interesting to see that Hull has been awarded considerable funding for 2022 / 3, including over £8 million for high subject cost support and £1.6 million for Student Access.
It is easy to simply engage in extreme cost cutting measures through policies such as redundancies, closing departments/programmes, and then leaving the place in a sort of train wreck of poor employee satisfaction and high turnover rates before exiting from the university. Did the author of this article bother to even research on the significant damage this VC had done to the workplace of this university in the name of financial sustainability before leaving it? Senior management like herself always wish to take credit for things that they have little involvement in. For example student satisfaction - the primary drivers of student satisfaction are frontline staff (e.g., administrators and teaching staff who handle students), not people like the VC.