Friday, 2 March 2012

Thinking about university strategy

Like all large organisations these days, universities periodically spend some time reflecting on their strategy, and my own university is just now undertaking such an exercise. It seems to be an opportunity for a university to think about its strengths and weaknesses; to think where it wants to focus its energies in the coming years - meaning both subject areas, levels of study, and market segments (home and EU, attracting overseas students, full-time vs. part-time, distance learning, overseas campuses, etc.); to determine the most appropriate comparator institutions (against which we see ourselves directly competing); and to make sure that whatever we do, we do it within budget. Taken together, this is all quite demanding - strategy is not an easy business!

Given the uncertainties of life, a strategy is never going to take the form of a set of precise instructions for people within the institution to follow, it will be more like a framework, a set of guiding principles that shape how we think about the institution, and how we see it moving forward.

Ideally, too, a decent strategy needs to avoid the platitudes and management-speak that are so pervasive nowadays, aiming instead to set out a small number of quite concrete and understandable goals, while identifying the key constraints and challenges that have to be overcome in order to achieve them, or at least get the institution shifting in the right direction. If that can be done, there is a good chance that staff will see the strategy as something they can understand, relate to and support, which is surely at least half the battle. There is nothing worse than a strategy full of abstract and general notions that are neither understandable nor operational. So I hope my own institution will try to be both ambitious and very practical when our strategy is finally settled (in a few months' time).

As for the content of a strategy, it obviously has to address the main areas of a university's business, namely teaching (or, as we often term it more broadly nowadays, the student experience), research, links with business and the community, and the international dimension. In each area, we should be playing to our strengths, while differentiating ourselves from neighbouring institutions (it would be rather foolish for all the Edinburgh-based universities to end up looking pretty much the same, for instance) and enhancing our position in relation to our principal competitors.

Doing all this within budget is the real challenge, not least because a high proportion of UK universities, including my own, have already delayed lots of maintenance and refurbishment spending in recent years in order to avoid building up excessive deficits and debt. For a while this is absolutely fine and wholly understandable. But sooner or later there has to be some serious spending to upgrade facilities and services, otherwise the basic institutional infrastructure slowly runs down - buildings simply become shabby, and fail to deliver services of the needed quality. Finding the funds to redress such deficiencies and, more positively, investing to provide a wholly new level of service quality, will be the real measure of success of any new strategy.

Then there is the awkward matter of the changing higher educational landscape. Should we, for example, think of most of our provision in terms of on-campus, conventional, full-time degree programmes any longer, or should we be thinking more radically in terms of different modes and patterns of teaching/education, with new mixes of on campus tuition and distance learning, intermingled with massive use of IT to deliver material across the internet, to diverse devices (e-readers, mobile phones, PCs, etc.). And if we do move in such a direction, is it what students themselves really want, does it work as a model of education, what would it cost, and what would it imply for nature and quality of the overall student experience?

These seem to me to be important, interesting, and timely questions. I wonder how either my own institution, and many others, will answer them in the coming years.

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