The future? A pay-your-own-way free-for-all

April 4, 1997

Imagine tomorrow's world. Then think again. Fari Aklaghi looks at how scenario planning can help you be more realistic.

That higher education faces considerable challenges in the near future is hardly news. The atmosphere of expectation as publication of the Dearing report approaches adds daily to the already heightened tension in the sector.

But many would argue that the sector was heading for major structural changes anyway. The anticipated changes are the result of a dramatically shifted equilibrium, the implications of which do not only affect individual universities' academic strategies but also challenge their related facilities provision, ownership and management plans.

Key challenges are: * the financial problems of reduced funding per student compounded by deferred liabilities eg, maintenance backlog * simultaneous changes to the size and nature of demand and supply for higher education, and research * the increasing impact of information technology Although most universities appear to be competing for the same strategic "possibility" space, the future is very likely to span a much wider range of possibilities: sixth-form or vocational education, commercial education, support for lifelong learning, and commercial activities such as consultancy or technological innovation. Many options include and indeed rely on partnership between individual institutions and with the private sector in providing core products like teaching and research and delivering support activities such as estate provision and management.

Sheffield Hallam University's unit for facilities management research, through its Learning Forum of 15 universities and colleges, has been researching how to help member institutions face future uncertainty. Forum members include Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education, Bradford, University College London, Imperial College, London, Durham and East Anglia universities.

One encouraging area of enquiry last year led the team to look at applying "scenario planning" techniques to academic provision and facilities planning. The team used "scenario planning" not to predict the future but to allow key stakeholders to exercise their minds, accept that the most seemingly unlikely events today may easily become part of the reality of tomorrow and enable them to plot a well-researched and desired path.

Fifteen scenarios have been developed, ranging from the familiar and easily plausible to the definitely far-fetched. The box below lists and summarises ten of the scenarios.

In some scenarios support processes such as lecture room and IT resources may become the key, differentiating, strategic capability. The facilities and their management may even become the core activity of some institutions, which would link up with other universities and providers of education for the academic input. The core business becomes running the university and the academic component is outsourced. The strategies should also be flexible and sensitive to a continually changing environment.

Between them British universities own and manage estates and buildings worth many billions of pounds. The location, design and condition of that estate can be either a considerable asset, utilised as a distinctive strategic capability, or a liability that limits a given institution's strategic options.

At the most fundamental level, a university can either own or lease its fixed estate. Some institutions might gain flexibility by renting space from private developers. They may share tenancy and utilisation of some or all facilities with other occupants/users and benefit from being able to manage a flexible property portfolio.

Alternatively, the university can own a fixed asset, an urban or semi-rural campus, a distributed urban site or a small headquarters for a larger "virtual" campus.

The organisation has to maximise, or at least increase, its return on its premises. Can, for example, out-of-town campuses maintain an environment that attracts students and staff when there is a shortage of students and star academics are increasingly able to distribute their services? Will pressure for alternative estate uses undermine the conventional mix of research and teaching? Indeed, is that strategy sustainable at all? If not, the ownership of the facilities must be transferred to another user, or strong and sustained partnerships with other occupants and/or business associates developed.

Whether we will see the creation of the multi-outlet, have-a-nice-day, cheap and cheerful university or the rebirth of the introverted monastery institution with its cloisters and beautifully tended gardens, or indeed the virtual university, is anybody's guess. Rumours indicate that Dearing is likely to recommend attaching funding more directly to the student rather than to institutions. If this happens, higher education will move closer to a real open-market economy governed by the laws of supply and demand and competitive strategy. In such a context, we can expect this market to start to behave like any other.

The degree to which it will be safe to invest in any part of it and the competitive advantage of any player will depend on factors including the threat of new entrants and the leverage exerted by the buyers - students, industry and government.

Based on the UFMR scenario planning project, institutions appear to be following two paths towards this market. Some are aiming to compete on cost while others are building new strategic capabilities and differentiated products and services.

The challenge for facilities management is to be part of the process of strategic innovation that these developments are forcing in the business of higher education Fari Aklaghi is head of the unit for facilities management research, Sheffield Hallam University.

Scenario planning

Ten of 15 possible scenarios 1 MacRoland's University A teaching institute with IT-based facilities, low fees and intensive marketing.

2 Methuselah College Privately funded, profit-oriented university for the target over-50-year-old sector. Partnership with another institution likely.

3 Open University on the Net Relies entirely on the Internet. One administrative centre. Partnerships with IT equipment and service providers likely.

4 North Europe University of Neurobiology Multi-national, multi-site research-based university specialising in one subject. Industrial partnerships likely.

5 Fort William Institute Private high-tech research-based institution. Major industrial contracts and no teaching. Intensive facilities.

6 Sunset College College for part-time and full-time employed or unemployed. Operates more like a training college. Assessment and validation by local higher education institution.

7 Virgil Learning Club Targets people who "live" on trains and planes. Offers high-profile expensive business courses and club workshops. Private sector partners.

8 Community Campus Inner-city with sixth-form and vocational offering. Has community centre, electronic library and conference centre. Franchises in and out.

9 Abbess' Reflection Out-of-town campus. A well-established Buddhist run centre for ethical and religious studies. Access to charity trust funds.

10 Newport Pagnell University Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial College combine on a purpose-built site. Old sites converted to "edutourism" functions with help from the private sector.

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