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Latest news

The educational fog

Feb 16, 2021

Finding your way through government policy towards education and more broadly is like trying to find your way around a city in thick fog without either a map or a compass. The latest FE White Paper is yet another that underlines this and mostly adds to the problem.

Let’s start by saying what place the government should be trying to get to. Firstly, we live in a grossly unfair society in which any notion of equal opportunity is absent. This is obviously going to be much worse as a result of Covid-19. Of course the point goes well beyond education as such, but trying to develop education policy without recognising and seeking to address this is bound to fail. If we don’t know where we are going, we most certainly won’t get there.

Secondly, within education itself there is no clear road map. For example, it’s all very well spelling out what will be done in, say, further education, but it should be part of an integrated policy that addresses educational need from cradle to grave.

Thirdly, a huge amount of ground needs to be made up following years of underinvestment in lifelong learning in particular. As a direct result of massive “austerity”-driven funding cuts, there has been a 61% fall in part-time learners over the past 10 years, most of them over 21. The government has to realise that, if we are to keep pace internationally with technological and economic progress, the skills of millions of our people already in the workforce need to be substantially upgraded.

Let me illustrate the problem by reference to the recent White Paper - Skills for Jobs: Lifelong Learning for Opportunity and Growth.

It talks about continuing to support participation in English, maths and digital training. But these are key topics that must be addressed long before pupils reach 16. Schools and charities have the will to do this, but nowhere near sufficient resource to address shortcomings.

Furthermore, it is these foundation skills that are often lacking amongst all ages, so the White Paper’s acknowledgement that lifelong learning needs to be funded and delivered for adults to reach levels 4 and 5 completely overlooks those adults who don’t have the basic skills to tackle, for example, higher technical education, never mind highly skilled jobs.

So one problem with offering a flexible Lifetime Skills Guarantee is that the loan entitlement to be available (in four years' time) is for “the equivalent of four years of post-18 education”. We also have to target those who were failed in their primary and secondary education before they can realistically upskill at levels 4 and 5.

What is more, the chances of many of the people who need this help being prepared to take out a loan when they are most likely living at the margin, with heavy family responsibilities, are slight. Of course giving grants means much higher public spending initially, but also a much better chance of accelerating our progress towards being a genuinely skills-led economy, with all the economic and social benefits that will flow from that.

The White Paper talks about putting employers at the heart of post-16 skills. This has been said many times before, and the track record of delivery is generally very poor. The nearest we came to it is Investors in People. Much more to the point would be to put the whole community at the heart of skills policy, and not just for post-16. This means including local authorities, schools, colleges, universities and learning hubs in every community in the development and implementation of policy.

It is good to see the proposal to “provide clear information about career outcomes”, but this falls a long way short of ensuring that all school, college and university leavers, and those coming back into education in mid-career, have access to employability skills and careers advice.

To conclude, this piecemeal approach to policy, both in education and more broadly, suggests that the journey through the fog will be made even more difficult as the fog lifts - occasionally to allow a glimpse of a hoped-for landmark on the way which turns out to be on the wrong route, partially built or just a diversion.

To quote Andy Westwood, Professor at Manchester University: “Potential links with other departmental agendas such as those at DWP, BEIS and MHCLG have been largely ignored. The Treasury is ominously silent.”

Tim Melville Ross CBE is a Senior Advisor at Halpin, the home of experts in higher education.

3 reasons why using a consultancy gets things done

Feb 12, 2021

Universities are incredible places. They create and preserve knowledge, and educate lots of the front-line workers that are saving lives. They produce people who are making our lives worth living in lockdown by providing us with everything from counselling to entertainment.

But they face challenges - the myriad difficulties of Covid, the still-awaited outcomes of Augar, what the future TEF will look like, pensions, student wellbeing, equality and diversity, governance, as well as somehow continuing to deliver that great teaching and research when people can’t come to campus. Universities are huge organisations, and these times have underlined the necessity for rapid but sustainable change.

You don’t have to achieve all of this on your own as an organisation. Universities have often felt that they need to do everything themselves, but actually there are good reasons to call in outside help – at the right time and for the right projects.

There are three key reasons to bring in consultants who really understand the sector and what you need as an organisation:

  1. Experience/expertise: that project you are trying to run (such as introducing new policies and procedures for student safeguarding, or restructuring professional services), has been done by others before. If you don’t have expertise at the right level in house, you can temporarily buy it in to work with your team, and get a result you are confident in over a shorter space of time than would otherwise be possible.

  2. Capacity: Maybe you do have the expertise in-house, but there is simply too much to do to give it time. Perhaps it’s an assessment of a programme you are running, such as mental health provision, or managing a very large change project whilst also trying to deliver the day job. Bringing in professional managers who know how to get things done in a University can save you months of work, thus saving funds in the process. A stitch in time…

  3. Objectivity: Maybe something hasn’t gone the way you wanted, a big project hasn’t delivered, a department doesn’t seem to be delivering results, and you (or your Council) need to know why. Bringing in an outside view, rather than trying to delve through the evidence yourself, is an excellent way to use consultancy. They of course bring perspectives from working with other organisations too, both inside and outside the sector.

Many of our “Strategy” projects focus on performance. Sometimes that is where an area isn’t working and the Leadership Team want to know why, but sometimes we are called in to work with those who are already excellent, and want to be even better.

Our Fellows include some well-known and respected minds on Higher Education, and also those who can give senior perspectives from the third sector, from health and from industry. We have already carried out over 90 change projects in HE – we would love to speak to you about how we could help.

Shaun Horan is Joint CEO of Halpin, the home of experts in higher education.

Degree apprenticeships and technical education and training - here to stay?

Feb 09, 2021

The government’s Skills for Jobs white paper was published on 21st January. The benefits and ‘bear traps’ of this agenda have been outlined by Halpin fellow, David Allen, in his blog a few days after publication.

The implications for universities are significant.

The UUK Degree Apprenticeship Conference on 27th January brought together representatives from industry, universities, education membership organisations and Department for Education sponsored institutes to share information and experiences about forming partnerships to deliver degree apprenticeships, and how to progress the technical education agenda for the benefit of learners, employees, employers, universities and the wider economy.

This means reform for the university sector in terms of forming new partnerships, co-creating programmes with different administrative, quality and reporting requirements, and welcoming new learners with different entry profiles and support needs as they learn with their employers whilst studying. Many universities have engaged with degree apprenticeships and have successful programmes up and running mainly in nursing, policing, social care and digital industries. Growth areas for new degree apprenticeships are likely to be in film & TV and training that will support a ‘nature positive’ economy as we recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and tackle climate change.

As well as providing training and continuing education routes for the 50% of 18-year-olds who do not enter universities to study for 3-year undergraduate degree programmes, degree apprenticeships will meet the changing skills needs of employees who will need to reskill and upskill as the needs of the economy and industry changes.

Reskilling and upskilling.

According to Joanne Reynolds of HSBC, 90% of the workforce will need to be reskilled by 2030 and the blended learning and training model that degree apprenticeships offer will become the new normal for employees’ continued professional development as they respond to the changing requirements of their jobs.

Viral Patel of the OU reported that in an OU survey, 1000 employers revealed that 56% experience a skills shortage and 61% are not as agile as they want to be because of this skills shortfall. They tend to spend their way out of this dilemma by buying in additional expertise but they would do better in the longer term by investing in education and skills development. Industry is committed to developing apprenticeships as they are the vehicle for keeping the workforce relevant.

The development of skills related to employment has clear benefits for industry, employers and learners. There are other benefits too: creating a diverse workforce and ensuring that people in areas of social disadvantage are not left behind meets the governments Levelling Up agenda as well as universities’ widening participation and inclusion targets. Currently HSBC diversity data on their degree apprenticeship population shows that 26% are from BAME backgrounds, 33% from areas of high social deprivation and there is a 50:50 gender spilt. Whether 18-years-old or more mature employees, these learners bring different and diverse experiences and needs to their interactions with learning and training and this needs to be understood and supported by employers and universities when co-creating programmes and this created some challenges. Industry and education have their own culture, systems, languages and assumptions.

Work needs to be done to ensure that there is shared understanding of differences and how to create ways to accommodate them. Governance boards at strategic and operational levels can work well to do this and integrate the practical and the academic.

Undergraduate education pedagogy and systems in universities do not fit degree apprenticeships necessary blended structure and lifecycles. There is work to do to accommodate the requirements of degree apprenticeships into university student records systems and the usual cycle of activity to support the academic year. It is common for degree apprenticeships to be viewed as ‘non-standard’ and in terms of administration and support and quality requirements. However, universities are working to build capacity and systems to integrate the support of degree apprenticeships as they grow their partnerships and provision. There is a balance to be achieved between offering a structure that is workable and aligned to existing systems and meeting the flexible needs of employers and learners.

Degree apprenticeship learners have varying needs.

According to Manchester Metropolitan University, 80% of their degree apprenticeship learners would not have applied for a traditional 3-year undergraduate degree programme. Their learners need a nuanced, person-centred approach. Retention has improved from 78-93% by improving the pastoral support that is offered. They have practice development tutors as well as academic tutors who have regular practice development forums to share experiences and evolve their shared provision.

Information about degree apprenticeship opportunities alongside but different to traditional programme will heighten their profile and prestige with the different kinds of learners they will attract. Care needs to be taken to assess their suitability for entry at application so the focus needs to be less on UCAS points and more on potential to stay the course and the support required for individual applicants to reach their potential. This takes more time and different procedures than for more standard university programmes. There will also likely be a higher prevalence of specific learning difficulties (SpLD) in these cohorts of learners so some universities have embedded neurodiversity assessments as part of induction and focussed on accessibility and inclusive design when creating programme content and resources.

It is clear that degree apprenticeships and technical education and training are here to stay as a key part of the employer and education landscape. There are challenges to overcome to find ways for two quite different sectors to work together in partnership to provide meaningful opportunities for those who do not choose of feel that they do not have choices to study for a degree. Degree apprenticeships have the potential to provide a socially and culturally diverse pipeline for underrepresented talent into employment and provide industry with the skilled workers it needs in a post-COVID, greener economy.

Sara Doherty is a Consulting Fellow for Halpin, the home of experts in higher education.

Younger Independent Governors?

Feb 02, 2021

The role of student governors can be difficult as they often enter a governing body with limited experience compared to the other members who are much older than them and who have often reached significant positions in their careers. Also, their term of office is normally 1 or a maximum of 2 years which does not allow much time to get to grips with the Council/Board and have an impact. However, with the right support and encouragement student governors can make a significant contribution to the Council/Board.

Considering the issues students face on governing bodies highlights the age disparity between the independent members of the Council/Board and the student population more generally. The recently published Advance HE - Diversity of Governors in Higher Education study based on the HESA returns for 2018/19 gives the percentage of governors under the age of 45 as 20% - so 80% are over 45 and 18% are over 66. These figures indicate that the vast majority of governors will have attended University 40 years ago. This begs questions such as – does this matter? How well can independent governors connect with student stakeholders and how does this impact the student perception of Councils/Boards?

There are many reasons for this lack of diversity:

  • One of the biggest motivators for volunteer governors is “to give back” and people generally start to think about this having substantially developed their careers;
  • Councils/Boards tend to look for experienced hands with specific skills using skill matrices to target their recruitment of governors; and
  • Councils/Boards tend to want to appoint governors who are the “finished article” rather than considering their potential and how they could develop as governors.

However, there is a strong argument for potential independent governors taking on that role at an earlier stage in their careers and treating this as part of their career development. Although, the motivation is normally to “give back”, many governors grow considerably as individuals through their service as governors by:

  • understanding the role of a non-executive and using that understanding in their day-to-day role as an executive;
  • experiencing the wide variety of activity a University undertakes and the challenges it faces;
  • interacting at the Council/Board with other diverse and talented members; and
  • acting as a Council/Board team to ensure the Board is effective and the University successful.

A governor at an earlier stage in their career would in addition benefit from:

  • seeing an institution from a “helicopter view” rather than a divisional level in their day to day role or perhaps if already a CEO of a small organisation - seeing how a large institution functions.
  • developing skills including how to effectively influence agendas and colleagues

When appointing independent governors, there is an argument for considering the age profile of Boards/Councils. There is a considerable talent pool that is currently untapped. Universities could help promote more age diversity in their Councils/Boards and benefit from it.

Some areas that could be usefully considered:

  • If the developmental aspects of the role are properly considered then employers are more likely to be willing to release their staff as they will be able to demonstrate added value for their employer through their governor role. Universities would need to ensure that the arrangements for meetings and papers consider that governors have busy working lives and need to fit in this voluntary activity in a sensible way. One of the most disheartening aspects of being a University governor can be the unfocused paper volume.

  • Universities could use co-opted appointments at a committee level as a development route with the aim of moving the potential candidate to a governor level over a reasonably short period. However, Nominations Committees will need to focus on a candidate’s potential for development and much less on their CV. They would also need to support the individual’s development through training and mentoring.

  • Nominations Committees could reconsider their skills and experience matrices to highlight areas where younger governors could bring work experience e.g, working with or for younger people covering issues such as mental health, wellbeing, housing, financial difficulties, campaigning or promoting cultural change. Also, working in social media and digital.

The Young Trustees Movement exists to double the number of trustees aged under 30 on charity boards by 2024. They state that less than 3% currently are under 30. Having some independent members aged between 20 and 40 should help the student governors integrate more easily and should form a bridge between the older Council/Board members and the student body. However, there are also some very high calibre individuals below the age of 40 running significant enterprises who could be very useful additions to the Council/Board but who need encouragement to volunteer.

Gerry Brown has just launched a short book on the role of governors and encouraging this aspect of volunteering – Making a Difference: Leadership Change and Giving Back. Gerry has had many director roles but is also a member of the University of Exeter Council. It is a useful read for aspiring and existing governors.

Frank Toop is a Consulting Fellow for Halpin - the home of experts in higher education governance.

“Skills for Jobs”: what’s not to like?

Jan 26, 2021

Last September Boris Johnson delivered a well-received speech at Exeter College setting out the introduction of a Lifetime Skills Guarantee. I was struck by one Johnsonian phrase: “it is time to end this bogus distinction between FE and HE” because “everything is ultimately a skill… whether it is bricklaying [or] Greek philosophy”. I suspect the PM is more up to speed on one rather than the other, although his hero Winston Churchill was adept at both.

With the publication on 21 January of the Skills for Jobs White Paper, the vision set out in the PM’s speech has been fleshed out. The changes are evolutionary rather than revolutionary, building on existing architecture eg T levels, institutes of technology, employer engagement in curriculum design and standards and the apprenticeship programme. The lack of a three-year comprehensive spending review has perhaps taken some of the shine off investment that might otherwise be available, but there are some very welcome developments.

What is now unarguably clear is that the spotlight is shifting from the 50% who go to university to those who don’t. Brexit and the pandemic have cruelly exposed a structural weakness in the UK economy we have known about for decades but never solved; a chronic skills shortage holding back productivity and sucking in overseas talent to plug the gaps. Compared with other advanced economies such as Germany and Canada we have neglected sub-degree skills and perpetuated a system whereby university was prioritised socially, culturally, economically and intellectually over all other routes to employment.

This will not be put right overnight. There have been many false dawns with other reviews and white papers over the years. A plethora of qualifications have never managed to dislodge the gold standard of A levels and the Government’s target of 3 million apprentices by the end of 2020 seems to have disappeared since it was clearly not going to be reached even in the absence of a global pandemic.

However, there is cause for optimism. The penny has dropped with politicians of all persuasions that the expansion of HE will not solve the skills gap and that skills acquisition should have the same status as academic study. Indeed, as the PM implied they are two sides of the same coin. A doctor needs skills to implement medical education and a plumber needs lifelong development as technology changes.

Crucially, the proposals provide access to the student finance system with a four-year entitlement to student loan funding, presumably for maintenance as well as tuition. However, potential applicants will have to wait until at least 2025 to access the funding, after the next general election.

Employers will have an even more enhanced role in the new landscape. They will be designing “almost all” technical courses by 2030, including post-16 level 4 and 5 (sub-degree) qualifications. They will need the aptitude and appetite to do this complex and time consuming professional work in partnership with FE Colleges and other providers. There will be a strategic development fund of £65m to support the development of College Business Centres. Stakeholders will work together locally to produce “new local skills improvement plans” and there will be an enhanced role for Chambers of Commerce, although stopping short of the German and Dutch systems of compulsory membership for businesses. Crucially, the need for enhanced information, advice and guidance is recognised, although not given the extent of financial reboot it needs since the whole system will depend on the quality of advice about options given to learners and their families.

The White Paper tackles the issue of a relatively small number of chronically weak providers. There will be a more direct line of sight between the Secretary of State and individual providers, with the intention being to intervene before rather after they fail and receive huge bailouts. The image of the catcher in the rye comes to mind with the DfE desperately heading weak providers away from the cliff edge. These proposals sit alongside strengthened governance, leadership and management and a raising of the status of FE lecturers through national recognition and recruitment campaigns, together with enhanced development opportunities for staff.

The White Paper has generally been well received in the FE community. People are pleased with the profile generated for FE and the trust placed in it to catalyse a knowledge economy driven by skills procurement and development. There is a feeling that FE’s time has come after years in the wilderness being neither fish nor fowl (school nor university).

However, there are bear traps. How will the demand side respond? The system currently tends to run as a well-signposted motorway which leads from GCSE to A level to university. The complex web of B (orT) and unclassified roads will need to compete head to head with this well-established model to redraw the map, which never, in any case, turns out to be the territory. Incentives will need to be aligned to overcome the inertia of diverting from the motorway, or the new arrangements will need to be compelling enough to provide extra lanes on the motorway. There are green shoots, however. Degree apprenticeships are proving compelling where they offer fee remission and guaranteed employment with blue-chip employers, but they will tend to enhance rather than replace the HE offer. The new arrangements will require many tens or hundreds of thousands of young and adult learners each year to choose a technical qualifications route, employment or an apprenticeship rather than university. To do so they will need to be well advised of available options, be convinced that the technical option is high status and well rewarded and that they will not have burned their bridges in terms of access to university level study throughout life.

The governance proposals are a potential Trojan horse. Who will decide how and when to intervene? Will autonomous colleges which are well-governed and managed but for whatever reason do not fit the blueprint be subject to intervention? All this will need to be clearly defined and transparently operated.

There is a huge challenge for employers, the larger of which are already paying the apprenticeship levy. They will need to absorb a substantial overhead in terms of designing programmes, developing standards and employing the resulting qualified applicants who have put their trust in the new system. Many employers have already embraced these challenges but not all are willing to carry the overhead and some are resistant to change.

This is at least a ten-year project. It should be both/and rather than either/or in terms of level of study in order to create an ecosystem which places England (other arrangements apply in devolved administrations) alongside Germany in terms of the standing of technical skills in a knowledge economy. Failure implies a race to the bottom rather than the top. FE colleges have been handed the baton. Their role supporting their communities in the pandemic has shown they are capable, given investment and capacity, to pick it up and run with it.

David Allen is a Consulting Fellow for Halpin, the home of experts in higher education.

Senior Independent Governors

Jan 15, 2021

A Senior Independent Director/Governor/Trustee (SID) now appears, in some form, in the governance codes for all sectors:

The codes all operate on an ‘apply/comply’ or ‘explain’ basis. The Senior Independent Governor (SIG) is new to the CUC code, and as a result, many universities are either considering whether they wish to appoint one, or considering how they are going to ‘explain’ that they have considered it and decided not to do so.

Given that the SIDs have long been part of good governance in other sectors, one might ask whether some of the governance and reputational issues that have arisen in HE in recent years may have been avoided had we had this role in our university governing bodies. Indeed, The Halpin Review of the Governance at the University of Bath in May 2018 recommended that the University appointed a Senior Independent Governor and the Advance HE Governance Effectiveness at De Montford University in March 2020 stated that the University “should consider” appointing a SIG.

So, what is a SID, and do you need one?

The SID is described very similarly in both the UK Corporate Governance Code and NHS Foundation code:

“The board of directors should appoint one of the independent Non-Executive Directors to be the senior independent director, in consultation with the board of governors. The senior independent director should be available to members and governors if they have concerns which contact through the normal channels of chairman, chief executive or finance director has failed to resolve or for which such contact is inappropriate. The senior independent director could be the deputy chairman.” NHS Foundation Code

“The board should appoint one of the independent non-executive directors to be the senior independent director to provide a sounding board for the Chairman and to serve as an intermediary for the other directors when necessary. The senior independent director should be available to shareholders if they have concerns which contact through the normal channels of chairman, chief executive or other executive directors has failed to resolve or for which such contact is inappropriate." UK Corporate Governance Code

Later in the UK Corporate Governance Code, the role of the SID is described as leading the non-executive directors to appraise the chair’s performance annually, and on such other occasions as are deemed appropriate. It also states that the SID should attend sufficient meetings with a range of major shareholders to listen to their views to help develop a balanced understanding of the issues and concerns. So the SID is another way to provide a listening ear to ‘stakeholders’.

The Financial Reporting Council outlines how “when the board is undergoing a period of stress” the SID “becomes critically important”. He or she is expected to work with the chair and the rest of the board and/or shareholders to resolve issues that are deemed significant.

The following examples are given as to when a SID may intervene:

  • There is a dispute between the chair and the CEO;
  • Shareholders or non-executive directors have expressed concerns that are not being addressed by the chair or CEO;
  • The strategy being followed by the chair and CEO is not supported by the entire board;
  • The relationship between the chair and CEO is particularly close, and decisions are being made without the approval of the full board; or
  • Succession planning is being ignored.

SIDs are commonplace in the context of NHS Trusts or Housing Associations, although less so in the Charity sector where the Good Governance Code mentions the role of senior independent trustee only in relation to larger charities:

*"a vice-chair, ‘senior independent trustee; or similar, who provides a sounding board for the chair and serves as an intermediary for the other trustees if needed. This person may be the deputy or vice-chair of the charity." –*Good Governance Code

Again, given some of the recent high-profile issues relating to governance in the charity sector, the question arises - if these charities had a senior independent trustee in place would trustees, staff, stakeholders have had another route to air their concerns?

A key question we might want to consider is whether and how a SID or SIG might differ from a Vice or Deputy Chair role. Whilst the Charity guidance might suggest that the two can play a similar role in other sectors, they are clearly defined, separate roles with different functions. The benefit of a SID is that they are independent of the ‘front bench’. They are not the next Chair-in-waiting and do not cover for the Chair in her absence. As the CUC code states, the SIG is “different to the Deputy Chair who should be part of the leadership of the Board and deputise for the Chair as well as take on specific duties which are assigned to them.”As such they are a valuable sounding board at all times and in times of crisis are invaluable.

So perhaps the question should not be “should we have one?”, but “why would we not have one?” Why would we decide not to have an additional route to enable voices to be heard or concerns to be raised? Why would we not have in place a role that could help enable us to handle a future governance issue?

Universities are facing huge uncertainty and executive leaders and governors are having to make difficult decisions often outside of ‘normal’ governance cycle. Having another mechanism for mitigating the risks that could arise, and giving governors and stakeholders another means to express any concerns they have has to be a step forward.

Susie Hills is Joint CEO of Halpin, the home of experts in governance.

A seven-step approach to ‘remote’ problem solving with your team.

Jan 05, 2021

A colleague sends you an urgent email which begins, “We have a serious problem…”.

As a leader, often the desire is to jump into action and get the problem solved as quickly as possible. In pre-Covid days, this might have meant calling an urgent meeting to get all those involved around the table. Now, the first instinct might be to convene a video call.

The key to successfully handling serious problems is to step back and immediately begin a process to help you gain a calm and thorough understanding of the problem. This helps you successfully lead your team to an effective solution and, crucially, ensures the organisation has learned in the process.

As a leader, it’s your job to calmly set out the process by which you would like your colleagues to go about tackling the problem.

The seven-step process to dealing with complex problems can be summarised as follows:

  1. Definition – Establish exactly what the problem is, the scale of the problem, who is affected, the risks and the costs involved.
  2. Understanding – Gain a full and detailed understanding of the causes of the problem – avoidable and unavoidable. Consult those affected to learn from their experience and insight.
  3. Identification – As you talk about the problem, constantly ask, “What does good look like?” and collect the answers. This will help you to develop some success criteria and establish some potential solutions.
  4. Exploration – Consider at least three potential solutions – even if you think you are pretty clear what the solution is.
  5. Decision – Agree on the best solution – a plan, timeframe and budget for implementation.
  6. Implementation – Ensure effective implementation of your plan within an agreed timeframe and agreed budget. Communicate this to your team and stakeholders. Show how this solution addresses the problem.
  7. Learning – Review the implementation process and check that it is delivering your success criteria. See what you have learned as a team and see how it applies to other areas of your organisation. Share your learnings with other teams and stakeholders.

Share this process with your team, so that they know when they say, “We have a problem…”, the first thing you will say is something like, “Let’s define exactly what the problem is.” Indeed, if they know that this is the process you will use they should come into your office with the beginning of a definition. It’s only the beginning of a definition because it’s vital that you dig beyond the information they give you when they first alert you to the problem.

So how does this work?

Stage 1: Definition

Successful definition of the problem will require you to ask lots of questions. Questions like:

  • What has gone or is going wrong?
  • How serious is it?
  • Are there any legal, financial or safety implications?
  • What are the effects?
  • Who is involved?
  • Who is aware of the problem?
  • How was the problem identified?

As you will be asking lots of questions, you might find a mind map is a helpful way of making notes of your discussions. As you listen to the answers, you will find that factors interact. Your mind map will help you make connections and literally ‘picture’ what has happened.

Stage 2: Understanding

Sometimes this stage is skipped over, often due to the desire not to create a ‘witch hunt’ or ‘blame culture’, sometimes to avoid difficult conversations, or sometimes simply to rush to solve the problem.

However, you really can’t spend too much time understanding what caused the problem. This doesn’t have to feel like an investigation and can be a true learning exercise for your team. Explain to your team that, “If we don’t understand how we got here it will be harder for us to build the right solution together. There is nothing wrong with us facing problems; it’s part of doing what we do. The only mistake will be not learning from the situation we are in.”

The deeper your understanding of what caused the problem the better. Different colleagues may have different perceptions as to the cause of the problem and it is important to hear all views. Find out if the issue is a systems and processes issue, a people issue (capacity/skills?), or resources issue (budget?).

One way of capturing what you learn is to write down the problem and then list the first-level contributing factors. Then list the contributing factors to each of those first-level factors – you dig down level by level. The best way to capture this is to create a diagram that lists levels of contributing factors. This could work well as a shared document on a Google drive so your key team members can share it, add to it and develop a shared understanding.

“All well and good, but how exactly do I get this to work - especially when we are all working remotely?”

1. A shared list of questions. Brainstorm all your questions before you talk to those involved, and share this list of questions with them - they will have more to add. This list will help you define the problem.

2. Making time Your diary may already be pretty booked up and you may have an assistant who books meetings. You need to have initial meetings quickly and close together. Ask your assistant to make time and explain the process to them.

3. Initial team meeting Have a short video meeting with the key colleagues involved to set in motion the process, establish a shared understanding and review your list of questions and any initial answers they may have.

4. One-to-one meetings Follow your team meeting with one-to-one discussions with each of them to get their perspective. It’s best to do this over a day if you can rather than have these meetings over a protracted period. Video calls are more necessary for group discussions but you might find phone calls work better for one-to-one calls. Often people find it easier to talk about difficult subjects over the phone than on video. Ask your team members to prepare for the meeting – ideally sending you bullet points of key points they would like to make so you can dig deeper in your discussion.

Stage 3: Identification As you learn about the problem, constantly ask, “What does good look like?” Aim to find out who does this well and how they do it. The clearer picture you have of success, the closer you will come to achieving it. This isn’t about jumping to finding the solution, it’s about defining what you want the solution to deliver.

Remember you don’t need to understand how to get there at this stage, you just need to be able to articulate what you are aiming for. Depending on the scale and importance of the issue, this may be the appropriate time to discuss the issue with your Governing Body so you are clear on their expectations.

You now have a picture of the problem through your mind map, a clear idea of all the contributing factors and a picture of what success looks like. Stages 1-3 are complete.

Stage 4: Exploration

This can be a creative process for you and your team. Lead a thorough exploration of potential solutions - don’t accept the first one offered to you.

Ask questions like:

  • How else could we address this?
  • How many options do we have?
  • What are the pros and cons of each?
  • How do others solve this problem?
  • How could we solve it if we had no additional resources? (This tests whether the extra expenditure is needed)
  • What is the fastest solution?
  • What is the most long-lasting solution?
  • What is the simplest solution?

Ask your team to put forward at least 3 options. Test each option against your success criteria so you are sure it delivers what you need. Interrogate it further by asking questions like:

  • How could this be better?
  • What is missing?
  • What risks are there?
  • How long will it take?
  • What have we forgotten? (My favourite for bringing out further information).
  • What do our stakeholders think?
  • Does this address their needs/concerns?
  • Have we asked them?
  • Do we need their views on these options?
  • How can we best get them?
  • Are there any EDI implications we have not considered?

Ensure that your options are shared in some form with senior colleagues and the Governing Body (if you have determined that the problem warrants their involvement). Asking for their input at this stage will gain their confidence and ensure your decision is supported.

You will need to set aside quality time for this stage – at least one long video session, even better two, so people have time to reflect in between. You will need someone to capture notes in a shared document.

Stage 5: Decision

With all you have learned in stages 1-4 this stage should be straightforward. The key to success though is not just deciding on a solution, but agreeing on a timeframe and budget for implementation. It seems obvious but it’s amazing how often a timeframe and budget are not mutually understood and agreed upon. Sometimes teams who are under pressure offer unrealistically short timeframes or underestimate the budget required. Ensure the timeframe is realistic and that there are key milestones for the project and dates for these.

Ask your team to agree this plan and milestones to ensure it works alongside other projects which colleagues may be working on.

Ask questions like:

  • What might prevent us from putting this solution in place within the timeframe? –
  • What might lead us to go over budget?
  • What are we doing to mitigate these risks?

Stage 6: Implementation

By now many colleagues may have lost interest as they understand what happened and have agreed on a solution, but a robust implementation process must be in place. So often leaders find that problems recur and are frustrated that the institution hasn’t properly addressed them. To avoid this, ensure the project has a champion at a senior level and a project manager who oversees implementation.

Clearly articulate what information you would like your champion and project manager to give you at each stage of the project. Ask them how they will report on the achievement of project milestones, and escalate any issues which arise. If the team knows you are maintaining interest in the project, they will maintain the momentum and deliver the project. If they feel it has lost importance or urgency they may prioritise other activities.

Finally, at this stage, ensure that a communications plan is in place:

  • Who do you need to share your decision and plan with? Internally? Externally?
  • At what stages of the process do you need to communicate with them?
  • Do they support the decision and implementation plans?

Nothing frustrates stakeholders more than hearing nothing. As a consultant, I often hear, “I never did hear what they did about…”.

Stage 7: Review

So, the problem has been resolved, a solution is in place and you are achieving your success criteria – fantastic! But can you be sure that the problem will not arise again and that your team and wider organisation have learned from the experience?

Bring those who have been involved in the problem and its solution together and ask questions like:

  • What are the key learning points?
  • What could we have done better?
  • What other similar problems should we be aware of?
  • With hind-sight how do we feel we could have avoided being in that situation? Have we successfully delivered on all our success criteria?
  • What can other teams learn from this?
  • How can we share the learning?

This will help them to see that you value the work they have done to solve the problem, and their insight into your institution. It may also highlight further improvements you can make. It also establishes a culture where things get done and we truly learn from our mistakes.

Sounds simple, but how often have we worked in institutions where the wheel seems to be reinvented every few years and the same mistakes seem to be made again and again? Nothing undermines confidence in leadership more quickly than the same errors recurring. It’s also vital to document what you have learned in some way as it’s amazing how much can be lost when team members leave, and none of us will be there forever.

Many leaders need support to undertake this process. It may be that they do not have time to undertake the process, or that they prefer an independent view to be brought in.

Halpin undertakes this full process in partnership with our clients. Our highly experienced consultants have the sensitivity, insight and gravitas to support leaders and their teams to deliver change.

Leading Through Covid - Lessons for HE in Transition

Dec 07, 2020

This report tells the Covid-19 leadership story in HE so far as seen through the eyes of those who are in key sector leadership roles. The aim of the project is to capture the leadership lessons as we travel through this extraordinary period. The following summary provides headlines on the methodology and key themes.


In October and November 2020, Halpin conducted 28 structured in-depth conversations with university leaders individually and in groups, many of them Vice-Chancellors, across the UK. There were also conversations with the FE sector. The interviews covered a wide range of leadership perspectives, including crisis management, the student experience and academic leadership, decision-taking, civic leadership and institutional governance. The conversations will be repeated in 2021, probably from a wider range of viewpoints

Higher Education has been a key player in the pandemic story. It is making a profound impact through its research-led endeavours to develop a vaccine and find other treatments and technologies to mitigate the effects of the Coronavirus. At the same time, under challenging circumstances, it is delivering education to nearly 2.5 million students from the UK and internationally, directly employing approximately 500,000 staff, and working with key partners in business, civic authorities, and communities across the UK. Unlike other parts of the economy, ‘HE never closed’.

The narrative flowing from this study is pulled together under the following emergent themes:

  • Crisis leadership – developing a newfound agility and flexibility in handling change; putting to the test a range of variants of the ‘Gold /Silver/Bronze crisis command systems, balancing top-down with bottom-up.
  • Student support and academic leadership – pivoting between variations of on-line and blended learning in a process of co-creation between students and staff, balancing quality standards and safety in a delicate industrial relations context; striving to maintain an acceptable quality of social experience for students during testing lockdown situations.
  • Staff engagement and support – achieving a step-change in volume and style of communications with high levels of engagement, using on-line platforms, balancing home working with on-campus activities in teaching and support services; placing a major emphasis on well being and support to address anxiety and fatigue
  • Civic leadership – making a unique contribution to collaborative leadership at every level of surrounding the community, city and region
  • Decision taking processes – implications of shift to online meetings: greater agility and informality, with a range of impacts on the quality of engagement
  • Culture – many positive lessons about support, compassion, well-being and kindness; a range of perspectives on shifting expectations in relationships: balancing energy and burn-out;
  • Institutional governance – reflections on style and flexibility of Council meetings; handling risk and the relationship between academic and institutional governance in developing post-Covid strategies.

Questions and frameworks are offered to encourage reflection around these themes, to be used internally within institutions or across the sector in webinar conversations.

It is a story of major achievement and success, but also one that has understandably generated anxiety, tension and controversy. While focusing on the current story, the Report invites university leaders at all levels across the sector to find the opportunity to reflect with staff and students on lessons learned and to look ahead to beyond the pandemic crisis. A key challenge for the future is to decide which of those different dimensions of running our universities should be retained.

At its height, leadership inside the crisis was hugely challenging, but ironically, leading out of the crisis may be more demanding on leadership capability if lessons from the multitude of innovations are to be embedded into the culture and practices of our HE institutions.

This is an initial report. We are not yet completely through the most intense phase of the pandemic. This project will continue through 2021 to refine the methodology, maybe to widen the community consulted, and to capture more of the lessons, and to reflect them back to the sector.

Ewart Wooldridge CBE Consulting Fellow, Halpin The home of experts in higher education.

Halpin is running a webinar on Weds 3rd Feb, 10-11am to discuss the key findings and reflections in the report. You can register here.

Halpin Sector Report: UK Universities' Response to BLM

Nov 19, 2020

Halpin is delighted to today release the much-anticipated report: 'UK Universities' Response to Black Lives Matter.

Halpin Consulting Fellow Osaro Otobo was commissioned to lead the research project, which combined interviews with senior university leaders, SU presidents, and activists, along with an in-depth desk review and public online survey.

Osaro has authored the resulting report.


You can also watch back our webinar where we discussed the findings here.

Halpin has a range of services available to help you combat racism in your institution. Get in touch today if you'd like to discuss your particular challenges.

Halpin is proud to announce our partnership and support for #Kindfest2020.

Oct 15, 2020

Halpin is excited to be a partner and supporter of the inaugural #Kindfest2020, being hosted by #Teamkind.

The brainchild of Halpin’s Joint CEO Susie Hills, #Kindfest2020 is an online celebration for World Kindness Day – Friday 13th November, from 2-7pm.

This event features five curated ‘tents’ covering kinder work, kinder politics, kinder youth, kinder lives and kinder thinking. 100% of the profits will go to TeamKind’s chosen charity partners – YoungMinds, Captain Tom Foundation and Blurt Foundation.

An extraordinary programme of speakers has been announced, including Cherie Blair CBE QC, TV presenter Alice Roberts, philosopher AC Grayling, politician Caroline Lucas MP, and writers and podcasters Giles Paley-Phillips and Julia Bradbury.

Susie, who was chosen as one of the FT’s ‘Leading Lights in Kindness’ last year, says,“It is essential to explore new ways of working together right now. We need to spread kindness and support people who are struggling - be they our children, loved ones, colleagues or strangers. Kindfest2020 is a chance to come together, recharge our batteries and stock up our kindness reserves”.

Kindness is a key part of the Halpin manifesto which guides our consultancy work.

Tickets are on sale now.

As part of our support for the event, Halpin has agreed to buy a free ticket for all staff, Fellows, Advisors, clients and past clients – if you fall into one of these categories watch this space for your invite!