PA Consulting Strategising in an era of policy uncertainty

Strategising in an era of policy uncertainty


Universities should focus on developing a core vision and identity, says Phil Copestake

It’s a tough time to be setting strategic goals as a university. There’s an imminent review of student funding, increased competition to attract the best undergraduates and the spectre of Brexit lurking in the background, threatening to reduce student numbers even further.

“You could argue that in this current age of real uncertainty and change, a strategic plan is not worth the paper it’s written on,” says Phil Copestake, a Higher Education specialist at PA Consulting. “Universities are worried about applications and acceptances falling off a cliff. Many are looking at scenarios where the drop in numbers could start to bite. 

These immediate concerns are forcing universities to have tough conversations about how they will respond, with many even considering dropping entire areas of provision. “In the past they might have been able to chip away, save money more organically, but now they’re looking at more drastic measures,” he adds.

Faced with these challenges, should universities rip up their carefully put together planning documents and simply react to an ever-changing policy environment? Not necessarily, says Copestake, but instead institutions should focus on developing a core vision and identity that will carry them through this uncertainty. He calls this building strategic capability, rather than strategy per se.

“The institutions that do this have a strong sense of what they exist for, what they give to students that no other place can,” he explains. “This identity translates through the senior leadership right down to staff and students. It’s their story, their programmes, what stands out in terms of their broader offer - it’s not necessarily what’s contained in a document.”

There are three ways universities can build strategic capability, says Copestake, and this process begins with the senior leadership team. “The leadership should have a handle on the conflicting priorities the university faces and how they’re being dealt with,” says Copestake. “They know the key decisions they will make and opportunities they will pursue, and commit to not going beyond them.” This might mean, for example, learning to live with ‘good enough’ IT systems in the short term if a restructure of professional services is decided to be a more pressing objective.

Second, to support this leadership oversight, it helps to have some form of centralised capability that can initiate and manage how these goals are executed. Some universities have central project offices that oversee programmes and carefully manage change – the key is to avoid a situation where management send departments away to work on projects and report back when they’re done. “One university we work with has a director of strategic projects who describes herself as being like an air traffic controller, making sure multiple initiatives don’t ‘crash’ into each other, and that they ‘take off’ and ‘land’ appropriately,” he adds.

Finally, leaders need to ensure that they build partnerships with individual faculty management teams or other service heads. “Many universities are still highly devolved, with individual faculties driving their own agenda,” says Copestake. “So you need to make sure that each area of the institution is empowered and supported to fully participate in change. Without that, even a clear set of priorities and change programme will fall on the floor.” Giving autonomy to key figures within those teams can help – being asked to lead a strand of a strategic initiative can turn around even the most sceptical of colleagues, and they’ll bring their own teams on board, too.

Once a university has developed these high-level goals, how should it respond to a constantly shifting landscape? Keep the core goals clear and unchanged, but tweak the execution if needed, he adds. “You could say constant reassessment is a good thing, but too much is destabilising. This is why it’s important to maintain an identity, a brand, with a few really stable strategic objectives,” says Copestake. “Below that, you could look at investments you’re making towards meeting those goals and regularly review those so you’re not flogging a dead horse. The important thing is to be fleet of foot to change what you’re doing in response to the policy environment.”

In other words, the ‘how’ may need to adapt, but the ‘why’ should remain constant. It’s not time to tear up those strategic policy documents just yet, but it may be worth making sure they fit in with the university’s brand identity and core offer in years to come. 

Phil Copestake is a higher education specialist at PA Consulting.

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