news & articles

Mind the Gap – marketing’s role in managing student expectations

Apr 02, 2019

If you take a quick look at the headlines on student experience at UK universities, you’d quickly spot that there is much work to be done. The HEPI/Advance HE 2018 Student Academic Experience Survey showed that less than 10% of students said their academic experience was as expected. At the same time, the recentWonkHE research showed a strong link between loneliness, friendships and involvement with activities on campus.

It makes sense that student mental health and wellbeing are likely to influence retention, progression, attainment and graduate outcomes. Student experience includes both the academic and personal; they intertwine to create the whole. But this means it’s almost impossible to improve on the academic experience without also considering the much wider student experience.

We can’t remove all of the challenges that students will face whilst at university. But the evidence suggests that there’s a significant expectation gap between what they imagine their student life to be, and the reality of life on campus. So what we can do to better prepare our young people for their experience as a student?

The first step is to listen to our students, ideally through a formal and regular programme of research. We need to understand the realities of the student experience; the highs, lows and everything in-between. Ideally this should be qualitative insight from focus groups, interviews or even digital storytelling (we recommend a look at the work done by Dr Liz Austen at Sheffield Hallam in this area to capture the full diversity of experiences whilst still allowing us to identify the common themes that link these together.

Once we have this, we can use it in two ways. Firstly, to pinpoint those areas where we can and should take positive steps to better meet expectations. And secondly, to use this insight to change the expectations of future students. This means including the real story of university life – the good, the bad and the ugly – in our marketing content. We know our target audiences want us to be authentic in how we talk about our institutions – proven by the rise in popularity of review sites such as Student Crowd – so the final step is extending this to how we share stories of student experience. This means showing the reality of student life alongside the curated Instagram pictures of the campus under snow, or the glossy student testimonials that feature in prospectuses.

Applicants tell us that they want to know how many people will be in their tutorials, what ‘independent study’ really means in practice, how much money will they need for bus fares and what should they do if they haven’t found any new friends by the end of Fresher’s Week. This ‘trivia’ of student experience is actually what brings it to life and makes it a reality for an applicant. This means they can make better, well-informed decisions about which university to choose, which subject to study and where to live. And once they’ve arrived, they should also be better prepared for what lies ahead, with some of those expectation gaps well and truly filled.

If you need support in working with your students to better understand their experience – from student journey mapping to capturing feedback to inform specific planning or marketing decisions, we can help. Contact the Halpin team on 020 3930 8303.

Rachel Killian is a Senior Consultant for Halpin Partnership – the home of experts in higher education governance, fundraising, marketing and strategy.

Case Study - Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, Equality and Diversity Review

Mar 27, 2019

Our equalities work with Royal Centre School of Speech and Drama, a world-leading conservatoire, focused on race equality. It came from a commission by Central to assess the BAME student and staff experience, factors affecting recruitment and retention, and external perceptions of BAME students and professionals as a specialist institution.

Download the full Report here.

Understanding the sensitive context in which the brief was presented, Halpin fellows were drawn upon by specialism including strategy and HR to develop a highly focused review that had meaningful and considered staff and student consultation at its heart. As the profile of the review developed internally, so did the scope, becoming more comprehensive due to the positive impact and perception of the organisation from its staff and students.

Our work with Central addresses how to operationally deliver changes to policy and practice alongside a clear plan of execution informed by the staff and student body.


  • Full comprehensive evidence and opinion-gathering via survey respondents.17 individual staff interviews and 68 members of staff and students consulted via discussion groups.
  • Detailed research and analysis on sector trends and benchmarking, culture, student recruitment, admissions and communications.
  • Recommendations for a plan for operational implementation of the recommendations.
  • Support around the communication and dissemination of the findings to the board, staff and student body.

Why fundraise for Arts & Culture?

Mar 21, 2019

We live in shifting and challenging times. Money from Government at both Central and Local level is being cut, and the Arts are certainly no stranger to the effects of this. The National Theatre recently reported in an article for Fundraising Magazine that it had suffered a cut of 30% in government funding in the last decade or so. But in these straightened times, why should we fundraise for the Arts at all? Aren’t there more important priorities when people are living off food banks and suffering from poor mental health, to name just two examples?

There was discussion of this in the greatly inspiring recent get-together for RAISE: Arts, Culture and Heritage. This is an initiative funded by the Arts Council that is allowing the Institute of Fundraising to offer training, networking and mentoring to those working in these fields. There hasn’t been enough of this type of opportunity for those working in Arts and Culture, and it was great to be a small part of this initiative, but why is it so important right now, more than ever?

As a child of the 80s, my favourite summing up of this came from Mr Keating in Dead Poets’ Society:

“Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”

That was true in the 1980s, another tough decade for the Arts, and it remains eternally true. In the most challenging parts of the world, where far too many people are living in refugee camps, humans always get together to perform, to read to each other, to sing, to paint and create. These activities bring humanity and bearableness to otherwise unbearable situations. They are the things we have always done, not because they perform a useful economic function, but because they are part of what we are as a species. Stories, visual and oral, help us make sense of things. They allow us to walk in others’ shoes and help us imagine new possibilities. They’re about the art of the possible, and in changing times they can create the road map we need to a better future.

We desperately need medical advances, funding for fundamental and explorative science, justice and a whole list of things that are crucial to sustaining life. But we must never forget the things that make us human. There are enough donations to go around, and there is enough funding from government should they choose to deliver it to the hard-pressed Arts and Culture sector. In depression era America, a key part of Roosevelt’s New Deal was greatly increased funding for Arts and Artists, supporting people such as Jackson Pollock and John Steinbeck.

Lobbying governments to change funding is of course worthwhile and should be pursued, and things can change quickly when a new administration comes in. But Arts and Culture have always made their own luck. Against this background, it is great to see institutions getting out, inspiring donors and asking for big gifts, by getting givers to buy into the amazing and transformational things they are doing. They are helping donors to visualise why it is important to support them. They are dreaming in technicolour, and using their incredible spaces and people to inspire philanthropy. Everyone should be doing that – let’s not wait for Government to wake up. To use the words of Shakespeare, “Let us…on [their] imaginary forces work”.

Am I saying anything new in this? No. Does it need to continue to be said and repeated?

All. The. Time.

Go out and ask and ask proudly, and often. Fund the future.

Shaun Horan is Joint CEO and Co-founder of Halpin Partnership, a management consultancy specialising in nonprofits such as the arts and higher education.

Summary Why fundraise for Arts & Culture?Article NameWhy fundraise for Arts & Culture? DescriptionWe live in shifting and challenging times. Money from Government at both Central and Local level is being cut, and the Arts are certainly no stranger to the effects of this. The National Theatre recently reported in an article for Fundraising Magazine that it had suffered a cut of 30% in government funding in the last decade or so. But in these straightened times, why should we fundraise for the Arts at all? Aren’t there more important priorities when people are living off foodbanks and suffering from poor mental health, to name just two examples? AuthorShaun Horan Publisher NameHalpin Partnership Publisher Logo MARCH 21, 2019/ Share this entry Search

Halpin announces Consulting Fellow Bob Rabone

Mar 20, 2019

Halpin Partnership, a management consultancy specialising in higher education, is pleased to welcome Bob Rabone to its growing team of Consulting Fellows.

Bob Rabone Website.jpg

Bob was recently a member of the Steering Group which produced the Financial Sustainability Strategy Group’s report ‘Understanding the Impact of Income Cross-Flows on Financial Sustainability in the UK Higher Education Sector’.

Bob is a Chartered Accountant with over 30 years of commercial experience as a Finance Director with private and public companies, operating in a range of sectors. For 12 years to July 2017 Bob was the Chief Financial Officer of the University of Sheffield with responsibility for Finance, Estates, IT, Accommodation and Commercial Services.

He began his career training with Coopers & Lybrand (now part of PricewaterhouseCoopers) before joining a medium-sized accountancy firm offering consultancy services in financial planning, funding and information technology to a range of clients: from owner managed enterprises to public companies. A common thread through all of Bob’s executive roles has been the development of clear organisational strategies during periods of business growth or change.

Bob was chair of the British University Finance Directors Group from 2013 to 2016 and contributed to several HE sector reviews, such as the Diamond Efficiency, Effectiveness and Value for Money review. A focus of his activity in the HE sector has been to aid the better understanding of financial performance and financial sustainability by funders, regulators, governors, staff and students. This focus continues as a member of the sector’s Financial Sustainability Steering Group.

Joint CEO Susie Hills commented, “The breadth and depth of experience that Bob brings to Halpin is unrivalled. He is a respected finance expert and is already delivering great value to our clients.”

Why can we ‘plan and do’ but not review?

Mar 20, 2019

It intrigues me that most organisations have formal systematic processes in place for planning and building budgets, but fewer have similarly systematic processes which enable them to review their plans, assess the impact of their work and re-shape budgets accordingly.

It appears that we all find it easier to plan and put new things in place than we do to review how our plans have turned out and, if required, consider how we can dismantle and re-build things. Perhaps most leaders are by nature innovators – delivering new plans and ideas – and less likely to be focused on assessment and review. I certainly fall into this trap and can be magpie-like – distracted by shiny new toys. Yet I have learnt over time that sometimes you have to radically review your approach and re-shape your teams. Even if you are the one that built them up and your plans were sound, unless you are open to changing them you will have less impact.

Often departments build up over time incrementally. A post here, a post there, each one individually justified. The postholders work hard and justify their keep. They deliver results and they plan how they can grow their work. Reviews of these departments and their work tend to only happen when something has gone wrong, results are disappointing, a Director leaves or budget constraints are so severe there is no other way.

And yet the power of effective review shouldn’t just be used when things have gone wrong or when external forces align against us. We should constantly review our plans and consider how we can redeploy our resources in response to the needs of our institution and changes in the market. Locking resources into areas which were a priority and are no longer a priority is wasteful and distracting. It’s a luxury we can’t afford anymore, and ultimately it’s frustrating to those working in that area too – most people are fully aware of the impact they are having and whether their work is seen as a priority by their institution.

The Halpin team have become known for our work on Reviews. Our team approach reviews in a systematic way. We establish the scope and agree objectives. We listen, learn and understand the context. We explore institutional strategy and priorities. We assess the data and evidence – quantitative, qualitative and comparative. We offer observations, recommendations and options. And we peer-review our work to ensure we are drawing in the right insight from a variety of experience bases. Our work aims to take our clients towards best practice in their sector and form an actionable plan to bring about the desired change. This kind of review should be empowering to the client, enabling them to achieve their goals more quickly.

Bringing in an external review team can enable you to consider how you tackle change objectively, dispassionately. It can open up honest, productive discussion on areas which felt impossible to change. It can empower your team to bring about the changes they have been pushing for but unable to secure. It can help you to bring about a culture of regular review by modelling how it can be done in any part of your institution.

The Halpin team are not career consultants; we are people who have delivered change at senior levels in a variety of institutions. We have walked in your shoes and know what it took to bring about change. We work with care and discretion. We value the work you do and want to enable you to do it better.

Whether you work with Halpin to undertake a review or drive the review process yourself internally, building a systematic review process will be essential if you are to be able to respond to the changing marketplace. The key steps are simple:

  • Establish the scope
  • Agree objectives
  • Understand the context
  • Focus on institutional strategy and priorities
  • Assess the data and evidence – quantitative, qualitative and comparative
  • Make clear observations and recommendations
  • Test findings through peer review
  • Define options
  • Establish action plan

Halpin delivers reviews across the higher education sector. Two recently completed projects include a Review of Council Effectiveness at University of Bath, and a Race Equality Review at Central School of Speech and Drama. To discuss the particular needs of your institution, get in touch.

25 years in international Higher Education. What’s changed?

Mar 19, 2019

I realised recently that 2019 marks my 25th year in international higher education. This made me pause to reflect on what has changed over that period.

This article highlights three key changes – one at individual/operational unit level, one at organisational level and one at national/international level – and speculate briefly on what the future looks like. Observations are based mainly on the UK context, but some elements may resonate in other parts of the world.

Approaches to international engagement have become more professional The last 25 years have seen a marked professionalisation of International Office roles and operating practice. There are clearly demarcated functions, with career paths and opportunities for professional development. It isn’t just assumed that, if you work in an International Office, you can turn your hand to anything vaguely ‘international’.

Decisions are driven more by insight, market intelligence, data and evidence – and less by gut feel. In the early days, before international student recruiters really had regional specialisms, some people seemed to have landed themselves a plum role as ‘international officer for small islands in the sun’. They would pop up seemingly randomly in Mauritius, Cyprus or Penang.

Now, there is robust strategy behind international engagement plans, with expenditure needing to be justified, business cases made and return on investment measured.

In late 2016, I interviewed eight Senior International Officers (those in Vice-President, Director, Head of Office roles) from several different countries for an article published in the European Association for International Education’s Forum magazine on ‘the shifting profile of the modern international officer’.

Their stories tended to be a variation on my own (studied languages, spent time overseas, liked building intercultural relationships, fell by chance into an International Office role and worked their way up). They observed that, in future, they foresee ever greater professionalisation, with specialist roles requiring regional knowledge, geo-political nous, specific skillsets and the ability to straddle cultures.

Institutional understanding of internationalisation has broadened and deepened

Another major change is the integration of an international ethos across entire institutions, rather than ‘responsibility for international’ being vested within an International Office silo.

An academic colleague, whom I interviewed in the early 2000s, commented that the aspiration of any International Office should be to ‘do itself out of a job’. In other words to make itself redundant because an international perspective has become fully embedded in the thinking and actions of every single member of staff, and in every strategy and process.

When I conducted a national survey of UK HEIs in 2005, all respondent institutions had an international student recruitment strategy but far fewer had a broad internationalisation strategy. For many, internationalisation was equated to international student recruitment, with lip service paid to other activity strands.

Since then, there has been increasing understanding that attracting international students is just one small element of internationalisation. Most UK HEIs have recognised that having (and fostering) a global outlook is an important part of being a university on multiple levels. This has increasingly been reflected in strategy and infrastructure.

Institutional strategies started to include an explicit international dimension and were often supported by a dedicated internationalisation strategy. Other supporting strategies (e.g. Learning and Teaching; Student Experience; HR; Marketing) began to adopt a more global perspective. Many more Pro-Vice-Chancellor (International/Global Experience) posts were created to lead internationalisation efforts, foster an international ethos and coordinate activity across all functions.

Certain functions that used to sit firmly within the International Office (e.g. international student support; international exchanges; international marketing and student recruitment) were gradually brought into the mainstream. They were aligned more closely with (or, in many cases, absorbed into) other relevant professional services, recognising the benefits of inclusivity and embeddedness over segregation and silo working.

But there is another layer to consider. Concerns exist not just about whether internationalisation is fully integrated, but whether the type of internationalisation being pursued is ethical and sustainable (for all concerned). That is a question that only a few UK institutions are beginning to grapple with, but is likely to come under increasing scrutiny.

The external context has become increasingly challenging

It is tempting to look back with rose-tinted spectacles to the time when the UK was seen as an outward-looking nation and government policies supported a widely held perception that students and staff from beyond our islands would be welcomed with open arms.

From 1994/95 to the end of the first decade of the 21st century, international student enrolments grew and grew (despite the Asian financial crisis of 1997, despite the SARS and bird flu outbreaks of the early 2000s). Tony Blair’s 1999 Prime Minister’s Initiative provided an additional boost and sent out positive signals to the rest of the world.

The Post-study work route (PSW) was introduced in 2004, making the UK an even more attractive destination – until the 2010 election when the aim to reduce net migration to the ‘tens of thousands’ was positioned as the centrepiece of UK migration policy. Immigration requirements started to tighten in 2011 and PSW was closed in 2012. There was a refusal to consider removing international students from the net migration target.

Growth slowed drastically and damage has been further exacerbated since the Brexit referendum campaign. The rhetoric of the Leave campaign and large swathes of the media left the UK looking insular and xenophobic.

HEIs and individuals working in them have expended a huge amount of energy and effort trying to counteract these impressions. Although frustrating, this has perhaps been good for us.

It could be argued that we had become complacent about our ability to attract overseas talent. That we took for granted other countries’ interest in partnering with us. That we were concerned only about maximising income. That it was all take and no give.

Recently, UK institutions have had to do some soul-searching about different ways to ‘be international’. For example, there is much greater focus (at institutional and national level) on the outward mobility of domestic students.

The critical ‘international’ question for leaders within the UK HE sector over past decades tended to be ‘how do we make the UK as attractive as possible for international students?’. Some are now seriously addressing another question: ‘how do we equip our domestic graduates to thrive in a world where they constantly need to engage across cultural boundaries?’

Perhaps our recent challenges as a sector will force this higher up the agenda at more institutions? (Or perhaps financial constraints post-Augar will send us scuttling back to a fixation on maximising income from international student fees?)

And the next 25 years?

At the time of writing (early March 2019), it’s difficult to know where we’ll be next month, let alone in 25 years’ time.

I hope that, over coming years, we will critically engage with the ‘why’ of internationalisation (perhaps embracing the continental European perspective that it is ultimately about enhancing quality), question our practice from an ethical and sustainability point of view and remember that the benefits of internationalisation should be felt by all stakeholders.

If, in 25 years’ time, it is second nature to consider the global implications of our decision-making without prompting, we’ll be further ahead than we are today.

Dr Vicky Lewis is a Consulting Fellow for Halpin Partnership – a leading higher education management consultancy. Follow us on LinkedIn for more insight, news and comment. This article is a shortened version of one first published here.

For #IWD2019, let’s start with watching our words

Mar 07, 2019

The headline that “More FTSE 100 CEOs are called John than are women’ is certainly a striking one. A quick tally of UK university VCs tells us that it is not quite as bad in the higher education sector. (You’d need to include the Davids, Stephens, Stuarts, Nigels, Pauls, Peters AND Johns to beat the 25% of female leaders, which is still quite shocking but doesn’t quite have the same impact as the first headline).

Still. For most of us, if we were asked to close our eyes and picture a Vice-Chancellor, chances are we’d imagine a white, middle-aged man. If we were to repeat the process and conjure up a Professor in Physics, I expect it wouldn’t be too different.

What if we closed our eyes and pictured a Head of Human Resources? What does she look like? Yes, I say ‘she’, because most likely it’s a female. Universities have significant problems not just with horizontal segregation – with men outnumbering women in senior academic positions by 3:1 – but also with vertical segregation, where female leaders are most often to be found in the professional functions perceived as being ‘softer’ such as HR or marketing.

None of this is new. In fact, it’s been the same for decades. And that, in itself, is part of the problem. We are so accustomed to our leaders behaving in a certain way that we have been ‘trained’ by society to believe that this is the only way.

This is most obviously evidenced by the words that we reserve for just one gender. One example of this was highlighted in the #banbossy campaign of 2014. A schoolgirl who shows initiative and leadership in taking control of a playground game (i.e. managing resources, leading people) is quickly labelled ‘bossy’. But we’d rarely use this word to describe a boy’s behaviour, so children of both genders quickly learn that leadership qualities in a girl are not just inappropriate, but also so unusual that it’s worth talking about.

It seems to me that when we use different words to describe the behaviour of men and women, we show that we hold different expectations of each. It’s an easy trap to fall into, but it’s only by challenging ourselves and those around us to think about the words we use to describe someone’s behaviour or character that we can ever hope to change some of the gender equality issues that the sector is facing.

We know that to increase the proportion of women on boards, in higher education leadership roles, in senior academic posts and in other spheres of influence such as politics, some big changes are needed and they are way overdue. The language we use might seem minor in comparison. But I also believe that no new policy or targets will be effective unless we also encourage girls and women to lead. And, on IWD 2019 – just over 50 years since women in the UK were first allowed to vote – it’s about time we accepted that the language we choose to use to describe good leadership is a helpful place to start.

Rachel Killian is a Senior Consultant at Halpin Partnership. If you’re keen to better understand how your institution can work towards gender equality at all levels, drop us a line at [email protected]

Building a University for Life

Feb 25, 2019

“The idea that you will be able at 18 to study something and three years later you’ll have everything you need to take you through until you’re 75 is fanciful. If it ever were true it’s certainly not true now.”

This view was expressed by Professor Kathy Armour (Pro-VC Education from the University of Birmingham) at a recent higher education roundtable event. The point is beautifully made and one that I wish schools and universities were better able to support. Given that a current 18-year-old will likely need to reinvent their professional selves at least 3 or 4 times during their working lifetime, education shouldn’t be a one-time opportunity.

It feels like it is too readily accepted amongst sector colleagues that the fall in population of UK 18-year olds and the relatively high participation rate over the last few years will mean that the ‘mature market’ for higher education will continue to decline for some time yet. After all, if everyone who wants a degree has managed to earn it before they are 25, then the over 25s market is effectively eradicated.

But this feels short-sighted to me. It assumes that education – and especially a degree – is a one-time purchase and only a minority will later study for a post-graduate or post-experience qualification. From the many conversations I’ve had with MBA candidates in my time at a business school, it was clear to me that they all had one thing in common – they all had a perceived ‘gap’. They all felt that they were missing something; a skill, a piece of knowledge (or sometimes, just the graduation certificate), that was stopping them from accessing their next promotion or career move. I suspect lots more people also feel that they have a ‘gap’, but don’t always find the right sort of opportunity to fill it. And as the length of our working lives becomes longer and longer, and almost all of us will need to adapt with new skills, there will be even more who have a limited set of options open to them.

At Halpin, we’re currently seeing a number of universities reviewing their course portfolios, wanting to ensure they have the right provision in place to take them through the coming upsurge in the population of 18-year olds. Of course, the first step in any portfolio or curriculum review is to match their resources, market position and strengths with the needs of their target market. But we are also working with our clients to challenge them to think ahead to the future needs of their graduates. What will they need not just in 5 years’ time, but 10 or 20 years?

It’s encouraging to see this growing recognition that transferable skills like critical thinking are needed – including by Quintin McKellar, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Hertfordshire in the Guardian last week – so that graduates can keep up with the fast pace of change in the workplace. Hopefully this will also lead to wider discussions on making sure higher education provision gives graduates the skills they need for a sustainable working life over decades to come – and yes, even the opportunity to ‘reinvent’ themselves as needed.

If you’d like a conversation about how Halpin can help you to review your course portfolio or marketing strategy, email us at [email protected]

Rachel Killian