Strategic planning: time for a rethink?

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Universities are starting to approach strategy as a framework, rather than a rigid plan

For many universities, approaching the end of another decade means that it is time to look at their strategic plans again. While plenty of institutions relish the opportunity to reflect on past successes and set out ambitious goals for the next five to 10 years, a growing number are considering whether these documents are still fit for purpose.

“This cycle of publishing strategic plans has been in place for years, as much for compliance as for anything else,” says Mike Boxall, a senior adviser in the higher education division at PA Consulting. “They’ve become a vehicle to catalogue all the positive things that are happening and how the next few years will bring more, but few institutions also acknowledge the challenges they’re facing.” Shuffle a handful of strategies and they are likely to look alarmingly similar – something the Hefce-funded “Distinct” project sought to challenge when it was set up in 2010.

But with fundamental changes occurring both within the HE sector and externally, many vice-chancellors now recognise that their approach to strategic planning needs to change. “There’s a growing sense among universities that this past approach won’t do,” says Boxall. “They’re considering their institutional identity in this changing environment. They’re looking at what they want to be known for – what their mission is in this changing world.”

This shift is already happening in universities in Denmark and the Netherlands, where institutions receive a greater proportion of state funding but are approaching strategy as a “framework” rather than a rigid plan. “These frameworks are more geared at internal stakeholders, getting everyone pointing in the same direction. There are separate performance agreements with government for funding, which complement the distinctive values and priorities set out in the strategic frameworks,” he explains.

In the UK, a similar approach is taking shape through a rediscovery of the civic and public mission of universities. This encompasses their links to their regional economy, connections with the local community and how they collaborate with other institutions, businesses and public bodies to fulfil the needs of not just their direct “customers” but also other touchpoints around them.

Boxall argues that this is a reaction to the “marketisation” of higher education, where institutions must justify substantial course fees, maintain high levels of student satisfaction and defend press scrutiny into how they operate. He says: “Universities are under pressure to justify themselves as public institutions – they want to show they’re not just there to maximise income and graduate employability.”

Examples of this include Northampton University, where social enterprise is at the heart of what it offers through initiatives such as its Changemaker programme, which aims to identify and find solutions to social and environment problems. Students often run enterprises in conjunction with local businesses and this is embedded in the curriculum and student assessments, rather than an add on. Similarly, University College London’s new UCL East campus at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park is intended open up opportunities to thousands of residents who previously might not have considered university an option. “These things go beyond corporate social responsibility, they’re becoming mainstream to what universities do,” says Boxall.

When it comes to developing new strategic plans, more progressive universities are taking an “outside-in” approach rather than detailed, inward-looking institutional targets. “There’s a realisation that universities are not islands, that they’re taking an outside in view and looking at who they are for and what purposes they serve in a changing world,” adds Boxall. On a practical level, this marks a shift away from the traditional institution-centric SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis to ask wider questions about relevance, openness, engagement, value and resilience. It is through each university’s answers questions that will differentiate them and help them to stand out.

Taking this approach also enables universities to build partnerships with each other, with further education colleges, with industry and with private education providers. “This is similar to what we’ve seen in other sectors of the economy, but it’s taken a while to reach the higher education sector,” says Boxall. It is an acknowledgement that universities cannot respond to changes on all fronts and that it is of mutual interest for organisations to work together. With Brexit on the horizon and unprecedented changes to the world of work, this collective approach will become increasingly important.

Institutions will have varying approaches to how they build their strategic frameworks for the coming decade. Each will interpret external factors differently and each will create their own unique responses to them. In this way, universities can avoid the zero-sum battle for shares of their traditional markets and respond to the diversity of demands and opportunities in the exploding Learning Economy.

For more insights from PA Consulting, visit www.paconsulting.com