PA Consulting Why adaptive universities will emerge stronger from times of change

Why adaptive universities will emerge stronger from times of change


Institutions that excel in planning, communication and problem-solving are primed to respond to global challenges by improving the way they work

Even before the higher education sector was thrust into the coronavirus crisis, there was a compelling argument for institutions to become more adaptive. Uncertain funding, greater competition and increased globalisation were already making the case for universities to look at their governance and consider how they might set themselves up to better adapt to a fast-changing market. 

Arguably, the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated this. “It’s important that we don’t lose sight of business as usual, that we don’t leave ourselves in a position that’s unsustainable in the future,” says Georgina Cox, operating model lead for the public sector at PA Consulting. “For some, the coronavirus crisis has provided a catalyst and they have been delighted by how quickly they can change. The question is: how can they capture how they’ve done this and use this as we continue to change moving forward?”  

Universities becoming more adaptive can facilitate a response to the current crisis that creates resilience and enables them to plan for the future, ultimately emerging stronger. An adaptive university has the ability to pivot and change, but not at the expense of its core operations. The changes that it implements will always complement the clear focus on its academic mission. 

For most universities, the immediate focus has been on crisis management functions, what Cox calls “the nearest shark to the boat”. This could be anything from establishing more widespread remote teaching and learning to assessing the institutional impact of the likely shortfall in international students and supporting staff well-being. Teams have had to adapt at pace and deploy solutions rapidly, but Cox suggests “we need to be stabilising our organisations at the same time as transforming them to ensure that they are fit for the future”.

Fin Alexander, a consultant analyst at PA Consulting, likens the response to examples she has seen in the social housing sector. “Crisis and design teams have worked together, with daily virtual ‘stand-up’ meetings and weekly plans, on-the-spot communications and effective decision making.” In higher education, the Universities of Liverpool, Bristol, Exeter, Cambridge and UCL are among those that have come out with clear, unified responses to students and faculty, breaking the traditional departmental or functional boundaries, she adds. 

Reflection on how far an organisation has come is crucial, argues Cox. “This could be as simple as asking everyone how they are feeling that day, to celebrating even small successes such as reaching a decision more quickly than usual,” she says. This will become even more important as universities become more adaptive, she adds: “Universities are already starting to plan out their calendars in different ways, thinking about the needs of future students. They’re being more proactive and braver where in the past they might have been low-risk and subject to a lot of governance. They need to be able to capture this bravery at leadership level.”  

Looking into the future, this bravery could have a positive impact on areas such as lifelong learning and widening access. Universities may not have the same, secure number of applications this year as they would have normally, so may need to think about different delivery models. International students will not be as keen to travel, so is it possible to move start dates? Similarly, universities are uniquely placed to support research and workforce retraining where it is needed, for example manufacturing businesses moving to produce hand sanitiser or ventilation equipment.

“I don’t think it will be a case of ‘let’s get back to normal and have everyone back in the lecture theatre’,” says Cox, “but universities might think ‘why does it take 18 months to take a new course to market when we’ve demonstrated we can do things quicker?’” Seeing the potential to cater for those with different needs could open up institutions to a wider audience. Data will play an important role in how they adapt and respond. Rather than focusing on rigid five-year academic missions, universities might design strategies that are “not absolutely right but can be adapted”, she adds. 

This agility will be important as the international higher education market responds to the current situation. With Brexit still on the horizon and less global mobility until coronavirus-related travel restrictions are eased, it will be beneficial to be able to react quickly. Cox concludes: “If you design your organisation in silos with small professional services functions and core faculties, you are never going to be able to react quickly in a way that cuts across the organisation. You need to build adaptability into how you operate, multidisciplinary teams who can deal with issues.” 

According to Alexander, there are three practical steps that universities can take to ensure that they become stronger and more adaptive:

  • Ensure operating models can prioritise student and staff requirements, focusing on what makes the most impact and has the most value
  • Create a balance between designing solutions that tackle the most immediate challenges and those that work towards future goals
  • Learn from successes and embed these into how you move forward.


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