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Part 2: One in 5 British Universities is slowly dying. These five steps might just save them.

Oct 05, 2018

More than 20% of British Universities are slowly dying. They are post-92 institutions who have seen their recruitment numbers fall every year since 2011. To read the Guardian and the Times Higher, you’d think this was all due to factors beyond their control.

The truth is that their decline is completely reversible because contrary to what the doom-mongers allege, the factors causing it are entirely within their control. Here are five steps which many other post-92 universities have taken with great success.

Step 1: Develop a distinctive and differentiated position – and stick to it.

How is your university perceived by students, parents & teachers compared to your direct competitor group? Do you know? Is the perception distinctive or is it blurry generic? What makes your university different? Brand distinctiveness will derive from the spirit of the institution. What do you want to be famous for?

These are just some of the questions you should ask. Too many universities look the same, feel the same, talk the same. If you want to stand out in people’s minds, you have to play to your strengths, you have to appear as distinctive as possible. People don’t have time or brain space to remember too much about individual brands, so remember that less is more, and try to sum up your distinctiveness in three words or less. A real challenge for anyone working in higher education!

Step 2: Understand what your ‘customers’ really want.

When was the last time you carried out market research on student wants and perceptions in your catchment area? To what extent do your institution’s subject strengths align with local demand? Or is your programme portfolio reflective of what you can teach rather than what students want to be taught? Have you strengthened your courses with pathway choices, years in industry or abroad?

You can only sell what people want to buy. So, it’s a useful discipline to hold a portfolio review on a regular basis, not just looking at what competitors are offering, but also conducting primary research in schools and amongst employers. Be prepared to innovate. Being the first in market is a powerful brand differentiator.

Step 3: Know your 20:80

In every business, 20% of customers account for 80% of profits. Apply this to your university and find out which are the 20% of programmes are generating 80% of your income. Ask yourself why? And what can you do to make them even more attractive to future students? At the same time, ask yourself why is worth persevering with programmes which consistently under-recruit.

Universities are famously weak at costing their programmes, working out the margins on each. And famously reluctant to cull the walking wounded, investing the savings in much more productive and attractive alternatives. Very few universities can afford to offer universal choice. Strategy is about making choices, and sometimes they are painful. But make the choice now, and you’ll be glad you did in three years’ time.

Step 4: Focus your research efforts

The same principle as above should apply to your research strategy. Conduct a research review and consider whether your university research effort & investment is spread too thinly. If 3 & 4 in the next REF is the goal, decide which of your academics have a hope in hell of reaching that level and focus on their strengths – and disinvest in the rest.

Are there any good reasons why other subjects should not become teaching only? How much academic time would be released? How much could you save, either to the bottom line or by investing in winners? In the battle for survival, hard decisions have to be made.

Step 5: Explore the potential of Degree Apprenticeships.

There’s a number of universities who have made degree apprenticeships really work for them – and 15 are in the Russell Group. 14,000 were available in September 2019 according to the Good University Guide. At the more vocational end of the educational spectrum, degree apprenticeships are a no-brainer. Offering your students a fully-funded education, being paid by their employer, with a degree and a guaranteed job at the end. What’s not to like if you’re a student?

Have you launched your own degree apprenticeships? If yes, how many key local, regional, or national employers are you working with? If yes, have you begun to develop courses beyond the original four? If yes, to what extent are you using degree apprenticeships as a differentiator in your student recruitment marketing?

Degree apprenticeships are a potentially powerful differentiator giving you a student recruitment advantage. Ignore their potential and a neighbouring university will exploit your indifference.

Our advice is to approach this fitness exercise con gusto, rather than just by cherry-picking the easiest. Successful universities in the post-92 group have developed a strong sense of mission and identity. They realise that we are all living in a world which is very different to that of a decade ago. A world where at least in the short to medium term, supply exceeds demand. And a much more competitive world where only the fittest will survive.

David Miller is a fellow of the Halpin Partnership, the higher education management consultancy

Part 1: One in five British Universities is slowly dying. And it’s entirely reversible.

Sep 28, 2018

More than 20% of British Universities are slowly dying. They are post-92 institutions who have seen their recruitment numbers fall every year since 2011. And to read the Guardian and the Times Higher, you’d think this was due to factors beyond their control.

They blame the removal of the cap, the growth of unconditional offers, the ‘failure’ of the government’s market-oriented reforms, the fact that the TEF doesn’t seem to have had much impact on students, and cheap promotional tricks from more aggressive competitors.

These external factors seem not to have hindered the success of the 30+ post-92 universities who have seen their numbers grow significantly over the same period. These institutions have worked out that it’s dumb to play the rankings game by imitating research-intensive universities. They understand what their particular students want from a university education and have set out their stalls to deliver a relevant and differentiated experience. They hire great teachers and have built up strong links with their local employers. They feed employer input back into the curriculum, in a way that might be anathema to some in the academic aristocracy.

In sum, they understand their position in the market, and they have worked out how to compete in substance, without recourse to desperation tactics. ‘To thine own self be true’ as wise old Polonius said.

Although it’s true that some universities are “teetering on the edge” (THE 23/8) it’s not true that it’s largely down to “top institutions hoovering up recruits”. In any market, brand shares change within sector, not without. Ford are losing share to VW, not to Mercedes. It’s also true that lower tariff institutions overall are slowly losing share to higher tariff HEIs, but within the lower tariff sector, the unsuccessful are losing out to the successful in much greater numbers. Their direct competitors are eating their lunch.

Their decline is reversible because it’s not due to external factors – the strategies that can turn them around are entirely within these universities’ control.

In fact there are steps which could return these institutions to full health within just a few years, and I’ll be sharing them in part two of this blog.

David Miller is a Consulting Fellow for Halpin Partnership, the experts in HE. Halpin offers services to support institutions with student recruitment.

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How to engage stakeholders and give your research the impact it deserves

Sep 03, 2018

Halpin recently worked with a university who wanted to engage with stakeholders in relation to their research in a more strategic, targeted way. This is perhaps not a brief that universities set for themselves often enough. We loved working with the team, helping them make links to stakeholders who they might have otherwise overlooked, or not had a natural contact with. We also supported the preparation of materials and events they could use to take the work forward.

It left us feeling that there is a lot more that universities can do to engage a much wider audience with their research. After all, there are lots of policy drivers, as well as realpolitik context, to motivate universities to up their external engagement game, especially in relation to research.

Then there is the individual motivation. Research can be a lonely pursuit, but to you, the researcher, your project is fascinating – why wouldn’t you want to sing its virtues and curiosities from the rooftops?

Why should you boost stakeholder engagement?

These days the REF-driven ‘impact’ agenda, as well as growing attention for the extent of ‘public engagement’ in research, make the policy context pretty clear. But a good stakeholder engagement plan for your research project can help you do so much more. Stakeholders can help you find your next project funders, or they might become your next research project partners. Their feedback on your project might provoke the next iteration of research questions that you simply hadn’t had sightline on.

When should you start?

Right at the beginning! Stakeholder engagement is at its best when it’s thought of at the earliest opportunity and runs alongside your research plan. This way there are opportunities to engage stakeholders in the design of the research, and possibly use stakeholders as part of your data collection. For example, case studies from stakeholders are always a useful addition to the data you draw on, providing illumination or contrast or perhaps more stimulating quotes when it comes to write-up.

Who should you target?

There are plenty of stakeholders that you can consider targeting. A lot of research projects have a steering group of some description supporting the research throughout. If you have this – definitely the first place to start – ask the people who sit in this group about who they can suggest as stakeholders to contact and give them a role to initiate the conversation. This is a really easy way to get a conversation about your research amplified quickly.

Your research might have policy implications – so talk to the policy makers – the staff who work on policy teams in central and local government are usually keen to have contacts at the coalface. Professional and regulatory bodies often commission their own research and will certainly be interested in yours as it might relate to the development of the discipline or profession – hard for them to find you but you know who they are. You might even pay them an annual membership for your own affiliation, so feel free to pick up the phone and ask a few questions.

Pique their interest and make it irresistible

If you’re not a natural chatterbox (ahem, external affairs specialist) it can feel difficult to ‘cold call’ stakeholders and pitch your research. One of the easiest ways is to find a hook in relation to their own current interests – look at the news section on their website or recent events that they have hosted. Alternatively, consider if there are stories in national media that are of interest to them and that could relate to your research – tangential thinking is good here. When you’re thinking about a concise pitch of your research, start with why your research is important to them, not just a ‘what it’s about’ description. Really succinct briefing materials – the old academic conference poster format is an excellent form – will help you get your foot in the door. The depth and detail can come later.

Know what you want them to do

And once you’ve got their attention – what is your ask of them? It might be a speaking gig at their next conference/seminar/meeting. It might be a slot on the regular blog they publish for their audience. It might be a contribution to their practitioner forum where you get to debate the new thinking that your research uncovers in relation to standard practice. It could be a seat on their policy panel where they can take advantage of your brains and you can take advantage of how they position their wallet and decision-making powers. Whatever. You need to start with an open mind, a willingness to start a conversation and the determination and charm to get them to listen.

I promise that very few people will walk away completely free from your intervention, and your research will have stretched that little bit further.

Selena Bolingbroke is a Consulting Fellow for Halpin – the experts in higher education management consultancy.

8 signs consultancy might be right for you

Aug 21, 2018

Have you ever wondered whether being a consultant is the right move for you? Having led two consultancy firms and worked as a consultant at various times in my career I think there are some key traits shared by all good consultants. I’ve come up with eight, but fellow consultants out there might have more to add.

1. You love change and thrive in new situations

You can probably split any set of employees along a scale according to their comfort with change. At one end you will have those who resist change at all costs, and at the other there’ll be those who change things for change’s sake. Good consultants sit towards the change-loving end. They thrive in new situations which test their knowledge and skills, they are comfortable with being outside their comfort zone, and they look forward to the next project.

Consultancy involves digging into situations, finding out what is going on, finding out where strengths and weaknesses lie. It involves challenging assumptions – your own and the client’s. Good consultants thrive in new situations and seek to bring about change.

2. You ask smart questions and listen beautifully

Consultants must seek to build rapport with their clients, listen respectfully, ask (sometimes challenging) questions and listen very carefully to the answers. This isn’t a job for those who like to be centre stage, dominating the proceedings. It isn’t for those who need to do most of the talking. It’s for those who can pop their own ego in their pocket and focus on those in front of them.

3. You are a chameleon and yet are always yourself

Are you the sort of person who could work or has worked in a wide variety of workplace cultures? Someone who can be as comfortable in a laid-back office where people wear jeans as in a highly traditional formal office where suit and tie is de rigeur? Some of the best consultants have worked in more than one sector in their career – our team includes those who have worked in the charity, corporate and education sectors in the UK and overseas. Consultants need to flex in style and tone to have impact with their clients but they must always be themselves – because it needs to be truthful and rooted in their experience.

4. You can see the wood from the trees

Can you read a report or review a set of data and quickly understand the story it tells? Would you know what questions you wanted to ask quite quickly? Would you be able to pick out the pertinent points from the mass of information? Those kinds of skills are invaluable in consultancy.

5. You know your limits and take care of yourself

How do you respond to stress? Can you spot the signs that you have done too much before you burn out? Do you know when to stop and reflect? Can you cope with not knowing where you might be next month? Consultants need to able to take care of themselves and have inner resilience to deal with travelling, ups and downs in volume of work, time alone, time with clients and simple things like having to find wifi in a café in a town you have never been to…in the rain….

6. You can work alone or with a team

This is an important question to ask yourself, as it might determine whether you work as a sole trader consultant or join a firm. How much do you like working alone and how much do you thrive in a team? All consultants have to work alone a lot, so you need to know you are comfortable with that. However, if you join a firm you will also have the camaraderie of a team, colleagues to share ideas with, seek advice from or just moan about being in a café in a town you’ve never been to, in the rain, without good enough wifi to email that important report.

7. You are hopeful and helpful

Now I think this is crucial. As a consultant you must have hope that you can help your clients, that things can always be better, that problems can always be solved. You need to be the sort of person who rolls up their sleeves and digs in, not just someone who watches and comments. That doesn’t mean you ‘go native’ and lose objectivity, it simply means that you play your part with all your heart in bringing about change.

8. You are a go-to person

There are some people in any industry who are go-to people. They are well-liked, respected, asked to speak, to chair things, to join committees or boards. They stimulate others and want to do their bit to help (see 7). They collect knowledge and ideas and share them generously. IF this is you, then consultancy may be for you.

If these things ring true to you then consider consultancy – it may give you what you need to thrive and have impact in your work. It’s the best move I ever made and it might be that way for you too.

I hope some of you are reading this because you are interested in what it might be like to work for Halpin. If that’s the case I would add three more points to my list. To be happy and successful as a consultant with the Halpin team the following three points would be true…

9. You are passionate about higher education

Halpin are the experts in HE. To be happy working with us you must be passionate about HE, about the importance and impact of HE to the UK, and to the world! You have probably worked in HE, and if you haven’t then you have very strongly related experience or skills which you can swiftly transfer to our HE clients.

10. You are an expert

We offer services in strategy, governance, marketing, student experience and fundraising. If you have expertise in one (or more) of these areas, we might be a good home for your talents. You are undoubtably an expert in what you do, but you should be the sort of person who is keen to learn more, further develop or widen their expertise and who generously shares their knowledge and experience.

11. You are kind

We like working with kind people. The sort of people who really care when you have a bad day. The sort who offer help naturally. The sort of people who, when their name appears on your phone you want to answer it! We look for people whose values are clear in their work – who have respect for others and for their clients. We don’t have a set of values on our website – we simply act with kindness as we go about our work. If you are kind and kindness matters to you, then working with us might be a good fit for you.

Susie Hills is Joint CEO of Halpin Partnership – the experts in management consultancy for higher education.

To express an interest in working for Halpin, please send your CV and a short cover note via out Contact Page.

How safe can we make our universities?

Aug 21, 2018

The university sector seems confused about what is meant by safeguarding, and how far universities should go to ‘take care’ of their students. The debate seems to be taking us beyond the letter of the law to make campuses as safe as possible for students who choose to invest their time, future life prospects and future debt with us.

Staff in universities who manage services, or work directly with children and vulnerable adults, are aware of their responsibilities and reporting duties. Areas such as teacher education and outreach teams are comfortable working within child protection frameworks, and those in healthcare and social work understand the boundaries around working with vulnerable adults. It is known that particular attention needs to be paid to students who are admitted under the age of 18, and additional measures are put in place by accommodation teams and registry. There will be a safeguarding officer who knows the rules and can advise on incidents and risk.

For the majority of programme areas, it was and arguably still is, the general view that most students are adults, and that they should be treated as such. It is also the general view that it is the tacit role of the university to help them grow up by leaving them alone to experiment, make mistakes, test boundaries and mess up as they transition away from parents and into independent living.

But that was then, and this is now. Students are not all just 18 and not all of them have been launched out of stable family nests, well equipped to make their next fledgling adult steps. Students are diverse and bring very different life experiences that university staff cannot understand. The archetypes of students which we currently hold should be questioned. We need to build services and support around the needs of students by finding out who they are, in order to create an environment that guards the safety of all students and staff.

The non-academic experience is now as important as the academic credentials of a university. When students are ‘shopping around’ they will be paying attention to many aspects of their imagined life at each place they consider. The quality marks for teaching and learning are becoming easier to read with Bronze, Silver and Gold badges shining out from university websites. Universities make their destinations attractive and boast various unique selling points, but safety is not a popular one in the highly competitive environment in which we find ourselves now. ‘World class’, ‘excellent’ – definitely, ‘sustainable’, maybe, but safe – not often

Tragic incidents and accounts of students who have struggled highlight how vulnerable students are at times. Coping with the responsibility of responding makes some staff vulnerable too. It has become apparent that guarding safety is a concern for all of us in the sector.

The higher education minister’s recent statement that part of the purpose of universities is to provide emotional support is welcome. It puts mental health high up on the education agenda. However, his assertion that universities are in ‘loco parentis’ is not; it only furthers the confusion about safeguarding and responsibility.

A Mental Health Charter may be a good way to provide a baseline for provision, so that students and universities are clear about what is expected in terms of service levels. For Student Services teams who work hard to respond to demand with the resources they have, a Mental Health Charter may help them make the case for a standard of provision that copes with student need and expectations.

Governing bodies need to be aware of how formal safeguarding risk is managed. Increasingly they are being expected to be aware of other risks relating to student safety. For example, UUK advises that data about incidents of sexual violence and harassment must be reported to university councils, and change programmes around mental health are recommending a ‘whole institution approach’. To begin to achieve this in a genuine and informed way, and build an environment that is safe for all a university’s members and participants, more information and data should be provided on the work of support services.

A sector-wide way of evidencing how universities make efforts to ensure the safety of its students and staff would allow ‘soft’ student and staff support services to provide an accountable picture to senior management teams and governing bodies, so that resources can be allocated where they are needed. If the proposed Mental Health Charter sets out helpful, student-informed standards for the sector, we might find ways to be the best for being safe – and be proud of it.

Sara Doherty is a Consulting Fellow for Halpin.

The Halpin team includes experts in student experience, equality and diversity, safeguarding, governance and risk management. If you need support to develop your policies and practices in this area contact [email protected]

Clearing. The Black Friday of British higher education?

Aug 14, 2018

The transaction between prospective students and universities has always been unlike that of any other buyer/seller. Students chose their preferred universities and then universities chose the students they wanted. There was a balance between demand and supply which under the grant-funded regime used to seemed to work. It didn’t matter if only a handful of students chose a particularly obscure degree with no job prospects. The government grant would subsidise it, and the student would enter the job market with no debt to speak of.

Clearing used to be a tidy-up exercise for lower ranking universities to attract candidates who had missed their grades, and therefore their preferred university. More recently, Clearing became a means to fill unpopular courses at higher-ranked universities. The balance was beginning to topple.

The marketisation of British higher education which accelerated with the introduction of the £9,000 fee in 2012 has now destroyed whatever balance there was between demand and supply. Driven by the reduction in direct government grants and ‘liberated’ by the removal of the cap on student numbers, the vast majority of our universities have had no option but to compete with each other ever more strongly to maintain or increase their student enrolments.

This situation is now being exacerbated by the reduction in prospective student numbers caused partially by short term demographics and partially by a more circumspect student cost/benefit analysis of whether a university education is right for everyone. Demand is down, supply is up. The result is a classic buyer’s market, with universities feeling forced to do whatever it takes to make it easier for students to join. How else can one explain the enormous growth in unconditional offers? Or the fact that at some league table-driven universities, 25% of students are given a first? Or that lower-ranked universities are giving out cash and other freebies in a vain attempt to attract ABB+ students.

It seems to me that the huge growth in Clearing we have seen is further proof that we are in a buyer’s market, where sellers will go to great lengths to achieve their numbers. In 2018, the vast majority of British universities, including 18 out of the 24 members of the Russell Group, are using Clearing as a last-ditch attempt to boost their income for the next three years. There are 26,587 courses available in the Clearing section of the UCAS website right now, including 4,706 from Russell Group universities.

Some universities are in Clearing to fill their less popular courses, which given the competition in the market and students’ concern about choosing a degree subject that employers respect, are more numerous than ever. Others are in Clearing to slow their long-term decline and delay the day that the Office for Students comes visiting to question their financial viability.

From a university perspective, all of this is understandable and defensible. What is more concerning is whether the growth in Clearing is good for students. They will be making rushed decisions, not only about the university but about the course. Most of them will not have the opportunity to even visit the university. Some will be switch-sold courses they’d never considered or never even heard about, simply because there are places and a have a lower tariff. The short-term imperative of getting into ‘a university’ will for some transcend the need to make the right long-term decision. And this is the biggest decision they will have so far made in life, and one which will live with them for the rest of their days.

‘Shopping around’ this coming weekend is fine if you’re in the market for a new phone or holiday. But it’s not good enough in a market which you’ve never experienced before, which is going to cost you £50,000 +, which is going to absorb three years of your life, and which it will take the rest of your working life to pay for. In short, Clearing should be kept on the margin, not allowed to become mainstream. Too many students buying in haste and repenting at leisure cannot be good for the quality and reputation of British higher education.

David Miller is a Consulting Fellow for Halpin.

Case Study - University of Bath, Governance Review

Aug 13, 2018

Our flagship Governance Review at the University of Bath was commissioned following the high-profile coverage that the University was receiving regarding its remuneration policies and Vice-Chancellor pay.

This coverage developed into a brief to review of the effectiveness of Council and its sub-committees, which Halpin was selected to lead based on our breadth of experience both inside and outside of the higher education sector. Best practice across HE and beyond was a key aspect of the brief, as well as identifying areas for improvement in the current governance model and communicating these to the University community.

Our work found an institution already making improvements to its governance effectiveness, strengthening the way in which it consults and communicates with University stakeholders. Our final report was essential in guiding the University from governance compliance to governance best practice.

Download the full Halpin Governance Review for the University of Bath here.


  • Consultation with a large base of stakeholders: 1,392 survey responses, 49 individual interviews and 52 individuals in groups sessions,
  • A comparison of higher education sector best practice,
  • 15 Primary Recommendation and 55 Supporting Recommendations towards effectiveness and becoming an exemplar of good practice in the higher education sector, and also learning from other sectors.

U of Bath image_edited.jpg

We’re celebrating our first birthday!

Aug 06, 2018

We are 1, we are 50, we are 1100!

One year ago Shaun Horan and I founded a company – Halpin Partnership Ltd.

Believing that higher education deserved great consultancy, we brought together the best minds we could gather – a team of top-notch consulting fellows.

There are now more than 50 of us in the Halpin team. Together we have more than 1100 years of experience from higher education and beyond.

Over the past year we’ve helped clients to explore questions such as:

– How can we develop a strategy which responds effectively to the challenges in the sector?

– What does good governance look like?

– What can we do to improve our student recruitment?

– How can we improve our student experience?

– What can we do to increase our fundraising?

It’s been a challenging year for the higher education sector, and there are more challenges to come. We passionately believe that the sector can rise to these challenges. We’ll do all we can to play our part in increasing the health and sustainability of higher education.

We would like to thank everyone has worked with us over the past year and look forward to working with many more of you over the year ahead.

Susie Hills & Shaun Horan Joint CEOs and Co-founders Halpin