news & articles

Knowing when to leave…

Mar 09, 2018

Halpin Partnership joint-CEO and Higher Education fellow Susie Hills reflects on the legacy of a good leader and why knowing when to leave holds the key…

The strongest leaders bring about transformational change in the organisations they lead. They set out a clear vision and motivate the teams they lead to believe in the vision and deliver impact. They demonstrate their values in the way they work and the results they aim to achieve. Such leaders earn the loyalty and respect of those who work with them and usually attract people to work with them who share their values. They create an atmosphere which empowers team members to succeed, achieve and be themselves. They do this in myriad ways. Their success has been analysed and written about at length. Walk into any bookshop and there will be a whole shelf-load of books on the subject.

If you google the topic there will be a whole host of lists which try to sum up the qualities of a good leaders, they variously include words like….

Focus, Commitment, Purpose, Strategic, Integrity, Honesty, Awareness, Empathy, Communication, Passion, Positive Attitude, Optimism, Enthusiasm, Intuition, Innovation, Creativity, Inspiration, Confidence, Delegation, Decisiveness

I am sure many of us are lucky to have worked with leaders who demonstrate these qualities. It is a joy to be part of a team which has been led well and has delivered great impact. We also will have also seen leaders arrive and leaders leave. And, indeed, we ourselves will have arrived and left! We will all have seen leaders leave on the crest of a wave, applauded by their colleagues, but may also have seen them leave under a cloud with no-one mentioning their name (or at least not in the way they hoped and perhaps deserved).

Leaders leave. No matter strong a leader one is and however much value you bring, you will not be the leader forever. So how do you decide when it is time to go? How do they know when the time is right for them or the organisation? How do you judge when you have had the most impact and when you are ready for their next challenge? How do you ride the crest of the wave and not leave through the back door?

Ideally you should own the timing of your departure by determining when you have had maximum impact. Understand when your impact is in danger of diminishing – when you have done ‘your bit’. You may have been the perfect leader for a particular chapter of an organisation but might not be the best leader for the next chapter.

We all need people around us who can help us judge when the time is right to move on, when ‘our job is done’.

Some leaders find this guiding voice in the Chair of their board. The Chair can be the person who helps the leader to identify when they have had maximum impact. However, non-execs might not be close enough to the organisation to see when impact is diminishing or when a different approach may be needed.

Perhaps then it’s those closest to the work – their senior teams. Could leaders have their departure date ‘on the agenda’ from the start? Could they be bold enough to say, to their teams, ‘am I the leader we need for this next part of the journey?’ Do their colleagues trust them sufficiently to be able to be frank and support them to make the right decision about their tenure? Do they seek 360-degree feedback from colleagues to inform their views as to whether they are having the right impact.

We all understand the concept of ‘succession planning’ – growing talent to fill future leadership positions but we often don’t know when those successors will be needed or proactively manage the leaving process. If we added ‘departure planning’ into our repertoire as leaders we might find ourselves thinking about our role and that of our team members in quite different ways. Given that we will all leave sometime for some reason let’s lay out a route-map to our departure from the outset. We can probably make an educated guess as to how long we might be in an organisation and why we might leave and can therefore consider what we want to achieve in that time and how our impact would be visible at the end of our tenure. Clearly the date and reason for our departure might change but if we never even lay out a plan where does that leave us?

Asking “what do I want people to say about me when I leave this organisation?” is key. We can ask this of others not just ourselves. We can ask this of those who recruit us, “When I leave what will you want to be able to say I did for this organisation?” and those who work with us.

Once we have a clear picture of the answer, “when I leave people will say xyz about the impact I had and the way I lead”, we can use this as a litmus test throughout our tenure. Asking ourselves periodically “how close am I to hearing people say xyz?” or indeed “is it still possible for me to achieve xyz’. If we listen carefully to the answer we may be able to leave riding the crest of the wave, having had the most impact we can and looking forward to our next challenge.

Of course, sometimes it might not be possible to ride the crest of the wave. Perhaps achieving xyz is simply not possible. This might be through fault of our own (a mistake or decision we regret) or through forces beyond our control (an external change which impacts our organisation) however we can still own our decision to leave and be true to our own values. We can be honest with ourselves and others and say, “I came here to achieve xyz and it is no longer possible for me to do so.” We might not leave with colleagues applauding our success but they will applaud our integrity and in the end, that is all we have that really matters.

Susie Hills

The road less travelled - Berklee College of Music's inspiring new path

Feb 14, 2018

Halpin Partnership Higher Education consulting fellow – and arts education specialist – Tony Woodcock explores Berklee College of Music’s inspiring new path…

Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts no longer exists…at least as we knew it. The School that was founded in 1945, becoming a College in 1970, has now transformed into something much bigger and with the strongest potential to change the course of music education over the next 20 years. This is as a direct result of their merger with Boston Conservatory of Music, which means that for the first time ever in the States we have, under one organisation, a College that offers the full continuum of music, from hip hop to classical, together with theatre and dance.

A Mega Strategic Plan

To realise this huge opportunity, Berklee has just launched a brand new Strategic Plan for the periods 2017 – 2020 and 2020 – 2025. It gathers together all the new creative strands under the rubric “Learning Pathways” in an imaginative and innovative approach to student education and artistic development.

The new Plan embraces diverse learning styles, “personalising” the student experience to meet individual needs and choices. There will be “integrated learning pathways” for each campus, ranging from online learning to internships and study abroad. And the curriculum will be flexible and creative reflecting the demands and opportunities of the changing contemporary world. Berklee wants to build new spaces both physical and virtual and break down barriers between all the arts disciplines emphasising the transferability of skills. And perhaps best of all for the students, it focuses attention upon affordability which in turn will support recruitment and retention. The plan is visionary and under the extraordinary leadership of President Roger Brown more than doable. As Brown puts it, “With music, movement and digital technology converging, artists possess powerful new means of creative expression in the theatre, on the concert stage, and through emerging platforms.”

With the merger of schools, the number of students overall has now increased to more than 5,000, with a corresponding exponential increase in opportunities for creative collision. A major development for the whole field of higher education in music and the performing arts, it elevates Berklee to a unique position in the global educational world. Their ability to attract the best students and faculty has just increased dramatically. Without doubt it is a development that every performing arts institution across the globe should be watching.

In reading the Berklee plan there is a consistency of messaging that is striking. The same key words and phrasing occur on nearly every page of the concise 20-page document, emphasising risk-taking and the potency of technology in teaching and learning. The Plan also stresses the importance of key relationships with the music industry and demonstrates a remarkable awareness of the changes happening within the contemporary world. And it’s that last word, “contemporary,” that Berklee has managed to adopt as their signature not just in terms of their offerings but also how their work can help shape, inform, and reflect the world. They truly live in the contemporary world, understanding exactly its trends and what it can offer to the learning experience. With this plan we are looking at big ambition.

A History of Ambition and Innovation

Berklee has been around a long time. It was founded by Lawrence Berk as a School in 1945 becoming known for jazz, American music, and also rock and salsa. It was able to offer its first bachelor’s degree in 1966. The list of distinguished alums is as long as a freight train and includes John Mayer, Quincy Jones, Gary Burton, Diana Krall, Ramin Djawadi, Alan Silvestri, Esperanza Spalding, and Keith Jarrett. And that’s just skimming the surface. The complete list of artists is brimming with Grammy Award winners, practically since the first awards were presented in 1959. The College, established in 1970, currently offers concentrations in Music Production, Music Business, Contemporary Performance and Film Scoring, with some notable new Institutes in Jazz, American Roots, Africana Studies, and the Center for Creative Entrepreneurship. There is also a new joint five-year bachelor’s/master’s program with Harvard. And there is more to come with the Boston Conservatory merger.

Strategic Planning: Can Berklee Execute?

Institutional strategic plans are nearly all aspirational. But many, if not most, fall by the wayside in light of financial challenges. It’s the syndrome known as “next year’s budget is really your plan.” Berklee is in a very different world of possibility. To begin with, the College has an exceptional brand with a rich history in contemporary music. It has increased its reach globally with a new campus in Europe (Berklee Valencia is now five years old and doing famously) and major developments in NYC (we will look at that one in just a moment), LA, China, and India. It offers diverse programmess for students from study abroad, to an abundance of internships within the industry. Recently it invested heavily in brand new facilities at 160 Massachusetts Avenue, Boston, building student life facilities, dining areas, and state of art recording studios. In addition to its campuses, it provides access to free massive online courses (MOOC), which attract 1 million students, and it offers an on-line bachelor’s degree program for 1,000 students, to be followed shortly by a master’s degree. Recent major capital campaigns have raised close to $150m. This is obviously an organisation with powerful leadership and a clear vision of their place in the world.

Embracing Technology

Besides their approach to teaching and learning there are some other major areas of their plan, which I found to be groundbreaking. The first is their attitude to technology. At Berklee the advantages and potential of our technological age are embraced completely. They have plans for leveraging new technologies to accelerate learning and to provide new experiences in learning. These will involve virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), mixed realities and immersive technology making the learning experience developmental and personal rather than simply linear. Just imagine for instance the effect that VR could have on distance learning.

This in turn will mean that they will need to design new learning platforms, extending out from physical campuses through a variety of media. In discussing technology with the College I heard something I have never heard from a School or Conservatory anywhere, “we must get ahead of these technology developments.” It is a clarion call about the future.

A Concert Hall for the 21st Century

Then there are plans to build a concert hall for the 21st century. It’s all very conceptual at this stage with much work to be done but with enough ideas to make the pulse race. The ideas that were shared with me drew comparisons with the ancient Greek Amphitheater, which 2,500 years ago was seen as revolutionary in providing audiences with a live, immersive, and somewhat allusive experience all based upon suspending reality. In recent decades, audience expectations and demands have changed completely thanks to artists’ creative deployment of new media. And this revolution has rendered the 19th century concert hall obsolete. As disturbing as some may find this, it presents a major opportunity for a new model, a concert hall that will be experiential and contemporary.

Berklee’s design would proceed from the hall’s program and the technology needed to support it. Then a building will be designed that best serves this vision. It will enable augmented reality, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence and include thousands of sensors in the auditorium that could blend sound into any shape or color you could imagine. The Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT), Boston is already experimenting with ideas for an adaptive environment that could include headsets for performances, immersive sound and visuals providing a 360° angle of vision. This would galvanise concert production and revolutionise audience engagement.

Berklee has already shown that it has the ideas and the innovatory capacity to move the agenda forward to transform the musical experience for the creative artist and the audience. And their latest foray into the property market of NYC has this type of thinking as central to their plans.

Berklee Adds NYC’s Power Station

In September 2017, Berklee managed to take over the Power Station in NYC, probably the most famous recording studio in the States. Operated as Avatar Studios from 1996 until 2017, it produced recordings that are the stuff of legend: Duran Duran, Tony Bennett, Serge Gainsbourg, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna’s “Like a Virgin,” Elton John, Harry Connick Jr., David Bowie and the list goes on. And at one time it really was a ConEdison Power Relay Station providing electricity for the L train. It’s a 33,000 square foot facility in the heart of Manhattan. Although considered the finest recording environment in the world, it was until recently in danger of closing its doors and becoming a condo conversion.

The musician and record producer Rick DePofi had a dream about its future and managed to excite a few influential people such as Peter Muller, the hedge fund manager and singer-songwriter. Roger Brown also became convinced of the studio’s potential value for the College. Muller stepped up to the plate, purchased the building and provided a major gift, and the City of New York came in with a further $6M. So the building was not just saved but is now reconceived for a future perhaps even more exciting than its great past.

Located on West 53rd Street in the heart of NYC, the Power Station has four large studios. Studio A, the most capacious, has a high domed ceiling and enough space to accommodate a 50 – 60 piece orchestra. This is where the cast of “Hamilton” made their recording. Studio C is the busiest multi-track recording space in Manhattan. The lower level has room for a laboratory style rehearsal/ performance space suitable for experimental video shoots and VR. The whole development offers an opportunity to activate relationships between the College’s thousands of NYC alums and current students. It will also be a place to convene the most interesting and diverse thinkers, movers, and entrepreneurs. Needless to say, the music industry is taking a great deal of interest.

Stephen Webber, the new Executive Director and Dean of Strategic Initiatives, is in charge of the project. He looks like the happiest man on the planet! Highly energised, he talks with great enthusiasm about the plans for the building. These will include major upgrades to the technology, making it the best in the world: new lighting, LEDs, cameras, tracks, and booms. There will be VR including cinematic 360° cameras that will place audiences right in the center of an immersive live performance experience. The Studio will be used commercially, for concert, for teaching, and learning. The Educational component will focus on an Artist Development incubator program, treating musical careers as startups, and providing mentorship for emerging artists. “I see the studio as a hub of creativity and music, physically coming together to make art and to share this art through a new type of audience engagement,” Webber says.

And with the Boston Conservatory merger he wants to explore the worlds of Dance and Musical Theatre as well. “I want the building to be outwardly facing with strong partnerships in the business, and to be economically viable.” One of the new programs would provide the opportunity of doing a final semester in NYC around music production, engineering and music technology, with contemporary dance and on-line programmess. This will undoubtedly create unique and much coveted degree programs. And I don’t think Berklee will stop at the Power Station. I have the keen sense that this is the beginning of an exciting development stage for the College’s expansion and influence globally.

And that takes me to the major area of Strategic Development in the Plan, the merger with Boston Conservatory.

Oldest US Conservatory Takes Giant Step into the Future The Boston Conservatory is the country’s oldest independent Music School. It was founded in 1867 and today offers concentrations in Music, Theatre and Dance. It has a reputation for excellence with great faculty and a student body of nearly 850 with around 425 in Music, 160 in Dance and 260 in Theatre.

Undoubtedly, the most acclaimed programme is Music Theatre, which has produced numerous performers who have gone on to work in Broadway and regional theatre. Among the most noteworthy are Tony Award winner Alex Lacamoire ’95, co-winner for Orchestration of “In the Heights,” Eddie Korbich, Erin Davie, and Katharine McPhee.

The B.F.A. in Contemporary Dance is another great strength and has been recognised by Backstage and Onstage.com as the best such program in the country.

The opera programme is also admired and can boast Lorraine Hunt Lieberson as an alumna who studied there under the great conductor and pedagogue John Moriarty when the programme was run as a joint venture with New England Conservatory (1981-89). In recent years, it has become known for exceptionally adventurous repertory choices including Nico Muhly’s “Dark Sisters,” Janacek’s “Cunning Little Vixen,” Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin,” and Jonathan Dove’s “Flight.”

It was not surprising then that Richard Ortner, Boston Conservatory’s popular and deeply committed President for the last 18 years wanted to examine new ideas for the future of the School. He started discussions with Roger Brown at Berklee about the commonalities and opportunities between their schools and these talks eventually lead to the merger announced in 2015. It is a brilliant move bringing together two of the nation’s preeminent schools centered upon a transformational educational model of development.

Richard Ortner has now retired as President although he is still being retained as an adviser. This has given way to some restructuring, changing the position of President to Executive Director of Boston Conservatory at Berklee. This new position, with the many challenges that the merger will inevitably create, has been described as the most formidable job in higher education. And without doubt it is also the most exciting.

A New Executive Director at the Helm

Enter Cathy Young who was appointed to the position in the summer of 2017. She is more than a known quantity at the Conservatory having for the last six years been the Director of the acclaimed Dance programme. She is known for promoting supportive relationships with faculty and has a great reputation for the effective implementation of new ideas.

Her story in the performing arts is a fascinating one. At the age of 21, and without any previous training, she decided upon a career in dance just when everyone was advising her very strongly that she was just too old. Her subsequent career as a dancer and choreographer was stellar! She is passionate about teaching and learning. “What we teach has little to do with steps or movements or technique, but has to do with things like how to take risks, to embrace uncertainty, to be passionate and committed, to be vulnerable, to investigate, and to constantly challenge yourself. What we teach is, on the most profound level, how to live your life- and how to be alive.”

Cathy is full of excitement and energy about the merger. “The Conservatory system does not necessarily create innovators in the field and I now want to create an environment that will help to do exactly that. I want us to be known as the Innovatory!” The merger with Berklee will help with this evolution although she sees the Conservatory maintaining its brand within one merged institution. This will mean steering a steady course, carefully navigating change to allow all voices to be heard and cultures to adapt and develop. That she is a known quantity and someone who inspires trust will make the inevitable changes both more manageable and understandable. There are already ideas to produce an ancillary plan to Berklee’s own strategic plan to guide the schools’ integration. But Cathy is exuberantly optimistic about the future: “I am fascinated by the idea and potential of more interdisciplinary collaborations and how we can make this a central part of the overall experience we offer.”

She speaks with passion about the need for greater diversity, which should extend to faculty, students and pedagogy. About what needs to be preserved and what needs to change. Mission driven, she wants to emphasise and maintain in this new model the excellence, passion, individual attention as well as the long and distinguished history that the Conservatory enjoys. She is confident of making major progress towards these new goals over the next two to three years and wants to see a giant leap forward after five years. But she does not want to irresponsibly dismantle programs or ideas that are still valuable. “The worst mistake would be to loose something without understanding its value and importance.”

How to Make Change a Reality

Panos Panay, Vice President for Innovation and Strategy

Berklee certainly has the track record, leadership and resources to make change a reality but what are the practical considerations when it comes to changing the overall culture of an organisation? The scope of the new Strategic Plan clearly implies a major shift in culture. Panos Panay, Vice-President for Innovation and Strategy, gave me the best description of the challenges. We talked about the management guru Peter Drucker and his maxim “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” and how this relates to Berklee.

“Change requires a different approach,” Panos said. “Who are we right now? We have all these assets, all these experiences and we now want to effectively share this need, this identity and new narrative.”

And then he told me the story of the difference between Gardening and Architecture as a metaphor for the management of change. Architecture, he says, tends just to arrive. It’s suddenly there and that’s when you start talking about it. It’s the classic edifice complex. Gardening is very different, he went on. It’s about observing the desired outcomes through planting, pruning, feeding, nurturing, and checking on the environment. In management terms this could mean emphasising consistency of messaging, great communication, respect for individuals and a shared identity and purpose through a new approach to joint projects.

I had never thought of Berklee and gardening before. But it makes sense in finding their new pathway. To purloin Robert Frost’s famous lines with a slightly different interpretation: “I took the (road) less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.”

Tony Woodcock Halpin Fellow and Founder & President of Scolopax Arts

Will 2018 be Armageddon for some British universities?

Feb 06, 2018

Halpin Partnership consulting fellow – and academic brand consultant – David Miller suggests that 2018 could be the beginning of the end for the British universities which have stopped listening to their students…

It’s been coming for a while. The HEA. Higher Education Armageddon. Forecasters have been saying for years that the UK has far too many universities but growth in student numbers fuelled their survival, and the doom-mongers slunk back into their holes.

Now, we have the perfect storm. Lower-ranked universities continue to see their applicant numbers plundered by those further up the tables. Nervous universities are making unconditional offers to shore up their tuition fee income. And many high- ranking universities have gone into Clearing for extended periods, softening their tariffs for short-term volume, despite the longer-term consequences. Then, in the very same year that we voted to make ourselves a less attractive place to study for EU students, the long-awaited demographic contraction has well and truly kicked in.

UCAS applications for 2018 entry will likely be almost 250,000 down on 2016, and over 100,000 down on last year. The golden years have come to an abrupt end, culminating in 2017, the sector’s annus horribilis, with public controversy about tuition fees, Vice-Chancellors’ pay, higher education value for money and the level of student debt. Not that you’d ever have guessed if you’d been reading the press releases from the Russell Group or UUK.

British universities have used the last decade to grow their numbers, grow their infrastructure and grow their debt, without any thought to the old stock market adage that what goes up, must come down. Money was cheap, growth seemed unstoppable, and hubris infected the entire sector. In short, they have been over-trading, and now that the market is in decline, many are in trouble.

With 70% plus of their income now coming from tuition fees, and with little or nothing in their piggy banks, many Vice-Chancellors must now either be contemplating corporate contraction, early retirement or both in 18/19. What goes in, goes out – they’re running on empty. It’s going to be a tough few years, especially for the 20 institutions that HEFCE have apparently got on watch, though even some highly-ranked, highly-geared universities must be looking askance at a much hairier future.

With the about to be launched Office for Students claiming that they’re not going to bail out failing institutions, it seems likely to me that what happens in the private sector will begin to happen in the higher education sector. The strong will take over the weak. The confident will absorb the nervous. And if we’re not very careful, the survivors of the Titanic will be picked up by the Hindenburg. (Apologies to Chris Wilkins).

Having grown up in a collaborative world, British universities have only had half a decade to learn how to compete. But since academic status is driven by research rather than teaching, it is hardly surprising that so many medium and lower ranked universities continue to bang on about their research as if they were founder members of the Russell Group, when the truth is that their teaching income is 50 times greater than their research income.

If you play to your competitor’s strengths, you lose. And that is why so many universities are in trouble. They’re playing the Russell Group game, when their real strengths lie in teaching and vocational provision. What they need to understand is that all students are not the same. That there is a huge number out there who want high quality vocationally-driven courses, delivered by institutions with close links to their local communities and businesses. The sort of courses that research-driven universities neglect, because traditional academic courses are snobbily accorded higher status than vocational.

The sector has been suckered by the Rankings merchants, and in the Rankings game, there will always be more losers than winners.

Better to understand your particular student market. All students are not the same. What do yours really value? What do they want from tertiary education? Where do they want to be in ten years? How can you deliver a differentiated experience, relevant to their needs? What is your competitive advantage? In three words, why should they choose you over competition? All this comes down to is that you should compete on your own ground, rather than pretend that you’re something that you’re not.

When was the last time you talked to your prospective customers? Not with quantitative surveys but by going into schools and talking to Year 11s and 12s, individually and in groups. Employing professional qualitative researchers to deliver an objective un-rose-tinted view, then listening to what they say.

If you want to compete and prosper, the first step is to understand your customers better than your competition. Then deliver the programmes and experience that they will really value.

Hush, but this is ABC ‘marketing’. The winners will be those that get it. The losers will be those who carry on as if the world hasn’t changed. For them, Armageddon beckons.

How come 130 British universities are in the Top 10 for something or other?

Jan 04, 2018

Halpin Partnership consulting fellow – and academic brand consultant – David Miller - explores the Higher Education sector’s obsession with rankings and argues that this is no alternative to real brand differentiation.

With some glorious and elevated exceptions, British universities are unhealthily obsessed with rankings.

Every university in the UK seems to be playing the rankings game. You see risible claims such as ‘Top Ten Modern University for Student Experience’, ‘Top 10 University under 50 years old, and ‘Top Five Green University’ as voted by student vegans (I made the last bit up).’ The caveats flow thick and fast – though as a sometimes cynical education consultant, I’m still waiting for London Met to advertise itself as the Top Ten University on Holloway Road.

This rush to the centre is then compounded by generic language and even more generic mission statements. Education marketers invariably describe teaching as ‘research-led’, even in universities which are brilliantly vocational. The vast majority of research is so ‘cutting-edge’, you’d better wear gloves. ‘Advancing knowledge and transforming lives through education and research’ is any university’s raison d’etre, but it doesn’t stop the majority banging on about it as though it was their very own USP.

Education marketers need to start teaching their senior management about brand differentiation. Why it’s important to forge a distinct identity is this now very competitive market. Why it’s important to focus largely on the values and spirit of your university, not on facts. Because most facts change from year to year, but values are relatively immutable.

Exeter, for example, is not a place that believes in ‘or’. It’s an ‘and’ place. It wants to be successful on every front simultaneously. Alpha management with a culture driven by ambition. So we summed up its differentiator as ‘We make the exceptional happen’. A distinctive brand truth in an over-crowded market.

Portsmouth, I know, really is a university that puts its students first. Where assessment and feedback are taken very seriously, and where student support is delivered at the highest level. Go onto their website and you’ll see this reflected in how they present their institution.

Lancaster, recently nominated as the Sunday Times ‘University of the Year’, performs better on every count, year in, year out, than the vast majority of Russell Group universities. So if I was advising them, I’d suggest using this as a way of saying crème de la crème – elite without saying elite – with their rankings as support. Lancaster, the non-establishment challenger brand, just as Virgin was to BA thirty years ago.

SOAS, University of London, is famous for its political activism and global concern. Its students, staff and alumni really do want to make the world a better place, and many go into the public sector, social enterprises and NGOs to make it their life’s work. If I were them, I’d use this unifying SOASIAN ethic to distinguish their institution and attract more students who identify with their values.

There’s a real point of difference in every university – but few have had the discipline to go find it. Perhaps it’s because universities are never afraid to use 500 words when five will do. Perhaps it’s the fault of the Russell Group, who have successfully duped non-members into competing on their ground. Perhaps it’s because it’s more difficult developing a single original thought in institutions which are inherently complex and consensual.

Or perhaps it’s the fault of education consultants and education marketers like me who have not made the case to University Vice-Chancellors and Registrars strongly enough. And the case is simple.

  • The UK higher education market is over-crowded.
  • The market will continue to segment.
  • Mediocre me-too universities will fail and be merged.
  • Success in this market requires you to have to have a distinctive positioning.
  • One which is perfect for your target market segment.
  • Ergo, brand differentiation is the foundation of commercial success, in the higher education sector.

Just as it is in every private sector throughout the world.

Can non-academics make good university leaders?

Dec 11, 2017

Halpin Partnership Joint CEO, Susie Hills, interviewed UK business executives taking on the role of university Vice-Chancellors in a feature in December 2017’s Times Higher Education (THE) magazine.

Read the full article here.

The frustrating truth about using University league tables to judge senior leader’s performance.

Sep 27, 2017

Are league tables a useful measurement of the success (or otherwise) of university senior leadership teams? The truth is that ‘it depends’. And, frustratingly, ‘it’ probably ‘depends’ rather more than we might first think.

Let’s start at ‘the top’.

At least 20 institutions will have the goal of ‘being in the top 10 in the UK’ in the objectives of their senior leadership teams.

If you are on the senior leadership of one of the half a dozen or so institutions which score so highly that they are likely to maintain their top 10 placement no matter what (Oxford, Cambridge, UCL, etc) then UK league table position probably isn’t the best measure of your performance. Your focus would be firmly on international league table position or setting the agenda in a particular key performance area.

Then there are the ‘top 10 candidates’ all seeking to fill the remaining 3 or 4 slots. There are over a dozen in this pack and they are very tightly bunched. This means that slight variables in performance can mean you are in, or out, of the top 10 pretty swiftly. Notice Exeter’s rise from languishing in the 30s to a steady top 10 position or thereabouts in most of the league tables and then note this year’s drop to 14 in the Times League table. Has Exeter’s performance declined or have others outpaced it? Consider Loughborough’s rise from the teens to top 6 in the THE table of tables and “top 11” in all three league tables. What lies behind Loughborough’s journey and will it/can it sustain this position over the coming years? Or the University of Glasgow here who have seen a steady rise in performance in both UK and international tables and have just broken in to the top 20 for the first time (117th in 2014 to 88th in 2017 in THE; 29th to 20th in Sunday Times). Each institution’s position will tell a complex story of strategy, investment, focus, competition and reputation.

Governing bodies of the ‘top 10 candidates’ are hungry for metrics y which to judge the performance of their senior leadership teams (and now under media and political scrutiny to justify the remuneration of those leaders). These governing bodies will take a keen interest as to whether they get in, stay in or fall out of the top 10. In this part of the sector UK league tables matter, a, lot.

And it’s the same elsewhere in the sector, but the measure won’t be ‘top 10’. Perhaps its ‘top 50’ or best in your class or region or best for a particular measure. It would be an unusual governing body who paid no attention to league table performance as they consider whether their senior leadership team is doing a good job (and what they should be paid for that job).

But is UK league table position really a robust measure of senior leadership performance?

Surely the answer must be yes? The measures the league tables use are undoubtedly key performance indicators for university performance. Taken together these measures give us a pretty rounded view of performance (although one must note the lag in performance as data in some areas may be a couple of years old). They tell us how hard it is to get into an institution, how satisfied students are with their course, the quality of degrees they get, the quality of research being undertaken in the institution, how the institution is investing in infrastructure and the employability of graduates. If this was a business we would have a pretty clear picture of the quality of products and services, the demand from customers, how happy the customers are. It also tells us how each institution compares to others on each and every measure and for each subject area. The frustrating truth, however, is that ‘the devil is in the detail’.

The problem isn’t in the individual measures. Leadership should undoubtedly be judged for successfully increasing research capacity or quality or increasing student satisfaction. The individual measures are robust. The problem comes in how the measures are combined and compared to present a league table position. One might assume that if you are genuinely doing well in these measures then league table position will follow. However, the weightings, method of aggregation, z scoring etc makes the league tables complex and all slightly different, so trying to predict or replicate is virtually impossible.

Take TEF for example – this should be used by students (and parents!) to inform choice – however, do students realise that the data they are looking at is old (4-5 years in some cases) and based on a complex benchmarking methodology? Surely it would have been sensible to more highly weight the most current year of the three to reflect how an institution is improving? Do we need new measures that are more a reflection of ‘value for money’ (not that easy of course but perhaps a combination of value added – tariff vs output – and contact time?)

Despite the inevitable vagaries, what is important is the reputation of the tables both in the UK and internationally on UK HE as a whole and the impact on the attractiveness of the UK as a place to study or work – surely leaders have a ‘responsibility’ to do well for their own institutions and the sector as a whole?

Surely senior leaders are responsible for either a rise (or fall) in league table position? Or does it depend on what metrics drove that rise or fall?

In some areas one might question their accountability. Can they be accountable for changes in the marketplace? They are clearly cannot control the population decline in the number of 18 year olds or the increase in the number of students entering without traditional A levels e.g. BTECs which is leading to a reduction in entry tariff, for example. However, they are accountable for their business planning and market intelligence. It’s their job to use market intelligence and demographic information to plan how student numbers may rise or fall and whether they will increase their numbers and how they will maintain quality. If they haven’t used market intelligence to inform their growth plans then they have failed in their duties. They are not responsible for external drivers but they are responsible for horizon scanning and effective planning. They should think about their risk appetite (what risks are they prepared to take?) and how they will mitigate, what is going to make them stand-out from the competition.

They can also ensure they are paying close attention to how their academic subject areas are performing as this is where the teaching and research takes place (the reason they exist, if you like), and certainly subjects with large student cohorts can have a significant impact on the overall league table performance. Good leaders will plan effectively and prioritise resources to areas needing help to improve, or to continue to support those achieving excellence.

But what if a drop-in position isn’t down due to a fall in any of the measures, but rather an increase in a competitors performance? Can the senior leadership be held accountable for that? Perhaps. Could they have done more to understand what the competition is doing? What they are investing in and how they are focussing their energy? Could they be benchmarking performance throughout the year and monitoring their competitors closely. Certainly most of the ‘top 10 candidates’ will be doing this on a regular basis and this intelligence and benchmarking should be part of senior leadership work in all parts of the sector.

An interesting question is whether leaders in an institution could be doing all the right things for the long-term future of their institution but experience a drop-in position in a particular year whilst they grow or invest. Clearly the answer could be yes. In this scenario the role of leaders is to anticipate that this fall will happen (due to significant growth in numbers, major development work taking place on the campus, a merger or significant structural change, significant curriculum change and so on), communicate the positon and show what they are doing about it long term to address and improve their position. Too often the league result leads to a knee-jerk reaction on the day it is published.

A wise governing body won’t just judge performance on the basis of one years’ performance (especially given the lag in data) but will focus on the trajectory of travel and will understand how change can negatively impact on league table position in the short term. If you are on the governing body of an institution which had been steadily rising up the league tables and was now experiencing a drop over the past 2-3 years you would be rightly concerned as to the longer-term health of the institution and whether your leader is focussing on the right things and keeping up with the competition. Assurance should be the found in the clarity of strategy for the institution and the performance of individual metrics and the market intelligence of the leaders – together these should enable a richer picture as to whether your senior leaders have done a good job (and warrant their salary package) than the league tables alone can provide.

One might liken it to corporate shareholders who look at a company’s longer-term market position, strategy and performance in key areas rather than the vagaries of one year. Is Tesco worthy of investment despite a tumultuous year or two? Clearly so given its size, scale and market position. Is Exeter still an excellent University despite its drop in position? Clearly so given its Gold TEF, high NSS scores and growing research capacity.

In summary, the frustrating truth is ‘it depends’. League table position, over time, can be an indicator of leadership success but ‘the devil’ is in the detailed picture found in each institution’s strategy, individual metrics and market intelligence.

From gut instinct to solution – working with consultants to make things happen.

Sep 13, 2017

It’s so frustrating as a leader to know there is an issue which is not being addressed or an opportunity which is not being explored. Your gut is telling you something must be done but you do not have the capacity to spend time exploring what is happening and finding a solution. You might be pretty clear in your mind as to what you think needs to happen but you don’t have the time to evidence your gut feel and put in place an appropriate action plan.

These are perfect times to bring in an experienced consultant to give you the capacity you need to analyse the situation, develop a plan of action and help you to make things happen.

Using a consultant usually won’t bring you a revolutionary idea, in fact that’s usually not what you need anyway. What they will bring you is an external viewpoint, insight from the marketplace, a guiding voice and expert analysis.

Look for a consultant who won’t be afraid to live by their advice and roll their sleeves up to help you to get things done. The last thing you need is a report which will sit on your shelf and piles a whole load more onto your to-do list.

Make sure your consultant is flexible in their approach and understands how your institution differs. You don’t want a report which simply replaces another university’s name with your own. One size does not fit all and won’t help you.

Consider what you really need your consultant to focus on and listen to their views as to what is needed. You may need to resist the urge to widen the brief; there is merit in focussed timely action versus large-scale projects where it can be harder to see quick ROI. Also ensure your consultant is politically adept and will work artfully with your senior colleagues – political fall-out from a clumsy approach will stand in the way of what needs to be done.

Decide whether you are best to work with a sole trader consultant or a firm. The former will, in all likelihood be cheaper, and if you get the right expert you might get exactly what you need. The advantage of working with a firm is that many issues are better tackled by a small team of consultants with varied experience between them. A firm is also more likely to be able to deliver to tight timelines, and will have the back-office administration to support the project.

Create a brief and agree this with your consultants. Be clear about your expectations in terms of deliverables, timeline and impact. Look for consultants who are focussed on how the work will be delivered and giving you recommendations which are practical and implementable within a short timeframe. Make sure your consultants really understand the HE sector and its complexities – approaches which may have impact in the corporate sector will only apply if carefully adapted by consultants with a deep understanding of HE.

Halpin Partnership is a management consultancy for the HE sector. Our team are recognised leaders with deep knowledge of HE. Working with us is like having a virtual senior leadership team at your side, we can support you to move from gut instinct to practical solution. Our team gives you the capacity and support you need when you need it most.

The frustrating truth about interdisciplinary institutes.

Sep 05, 2017

We all know that we cannot solve the biggest problems facing our society, economy or environment without working across disciplines.

Funders and philanthropists know they can’t achieve the impact they seek without encouraging interdisciplinary working and academics know that some of the most exciting and impactful research is being done in this inter disciplinary space. Young academics are interested in developing their careers in an interdisciplinary environment and the students of the future seem less concerned with disciplinary boundaries.

All this should mean that the various interdisciplinary institutes in our universities are thriving.

The frustrating truth is that the way our universities are structured, governed and managed places obstacles in the path of an interdisciplinary approach.

Many institutions have been creating physical space in which researchers (and less often students) from a variety of disciplines can work together – building some form of interdisciplinary institute. Interdisciplinary institutes which endeavour to capitalise on these spaces or seek to foster collaboration in a “virtual” space have existed for many years and continue to be created.

This trend has been encouraged through the availability of capital funding through HEFCE and foundations such as Wellcome and Wolfson.

Around the UK architects have been briefed to create space that fosters interdisciplinary working and their solutions are beautiful and often a joy to work in.

From the Environment and Sustainability Institute at the University of Exeter’s Cornwall campus. Funded through EU Convergence monies.

To the Discovery Centre at University of Dundee. Funded through a Wellcome-Wolfson Capital Award in Biomedical Science of £5 million and a £12 million award through the UK Research Partnership Investment Fund.

Most of these new buildings share some common features – informal social and work spaces, cafes, flexible meeting spaces, open plan offices and shared lab spaces.

However, it takes more than a new building to bring about an increase in interdisciplinary research.

Without changes in the we run our universities it will is hard for an interdisciplinary institute to deliver an increased volume of interdisciplinary research (and associated research income).

Success lies in rethinking three fundamental management processes:

  • The way we measure success
  • The way we build budgets
  • The way we govern

1. Measuring success

How is the measurement of success in academia discouraging interdisciplinary research? Sounds like a good PhD topic but I am not an academic so here is the management consultant’s view.

It appears that the way the sector manages and rewards academic performance may be preventing the very behaviours that it must encourage for interdisciplinary work to flourish.

As an academic a key factor in your career prospects is the assessment of your research output and quality: the number of citations you get and the research income you win. Your career is advanced by these methods and the institution’s performance is measured and rewarded by the sum of these parts.

Indeed some academics believe that institutions didn’t submit interdisciplinary work into the REF as it was seen to be too risky – because of these issues.

Certainly, HEFCE itself is not underestimating the obstacles to interdisciplinary working and has a panel set up to advise the REF team, REF panel chairs and the UK funding bodies on approaches to support the submission and assessment of interdisciplinary research in REF 2021.

And it’s not just a UK problem. HEFCE’s 2015 research showed a lower citation impact associated with interdisciplinary research among all countries examined.

So how can an individual institution tackle this when it’s a sector issue?

Universities need to be aware of the weaknesses of current performance indicators in terms of measuring success and rewarding the staff within our interdisciplinary institutions.

It’s vital to consider additional measures to recognise and reward interdisciplinary work. For example, recognising how this work contributes to international reputation.

Consideration should be given to:

  • Setting longer term targets.
  • Understanding whether interdisciplinary working is performing less well against your current measures and establishing why.
  • Mapping collaborative work to see how staff are working together at each stage of the research process.
  • Providing better guidance and support on publications and research grant applications to academics
  • Influencing the funding bodies and their panels.
  • Putting in place targeting PR activities which assist with profile and reputation.

2. Building the budget

Whilst interdisciplinary institutes and the beautiful buildings which house them are usually justified by the promise of increased research income and enabled through the availability of capital funding it is vital that longer term business plans are created. A five-year budget should be built before the building is!

It sounds obvious but many institute’s plans are signed off without detailed planning of the income which will result (and especially how it will change and be sustained over time) and the operational costs which will have to be funded. And, crucially, how this will work internally with the existing budgets.

Existing planning models tend to drive University professional services staff towards developing budgets for ‘business units’ – colleges, schools, faculties, departments (whatever each institution calls them). But the very nature of interdisciplinary work is that it crosses these departmental boundaries and so requires some form of sharing of budgets. Disciplinary heads have their own targets and priorities, prising resource from existing disciplines to create what may often perceive as a competitor is not straight forward. Asking for more resource later to let them grow and thrive can be even more fraught.

Unless the university finds ways to ensure that money flows towards activity instead of structural units, then it can be extremely hard for interdisciplinary teams to secure budget.

Research makes a loss in terms of full economic costings. With the right research funder it can break even or perhaps even make a small surplus (especially if another donor has paid for the building). What is cannot do is create the resources to allow it to grow and change, for this it needs to be underpinned by student fee income and other income, just like a traditional academic discipline.

If the planned institute is going to be research only and the teaching will remain in the participating departments then there has to be a plan as to how the institute’s operational costs will be covered – either through contributions from participating departments or through a central budget. The institute will also need access to additional funding to allow it to change, grow and thrive once the original funding for the institute has gone.

If students are taught the plans must consider the additional costs of delivering interdisciplinary courses. It takes more staff to create content and deliver courses. It also creates a logistical strain for the departments involved as they try to map out the teaching work that will be carried out by their staff. It creates a budgetary issue as to whether you ‘buy out’ staff time and the institute keeps the fee income or whether the fee income is apportioned out back to the “owner” departments minus the overheads of the institutes. In budget-constrained times departments will need to know how this will affect their finances and in effect be able to see ‘what’s in it for them’ other than just another competitor.

3. Governance

Existing academic disciplines have often been with a University since their inception. The governance and management structures were designed in an endeavour to facilitate their success. Interdisciplinary institutes (by definition) exist without the benefit of these structures.

For an institute to thrive it will need a champion to drive not only its creation but to sustain its growth and impact. Of course, this is great, whilst the champions remain in post, but creating a successful institute requires talent, tact and energy (the very attributes that often mean such champions progress rapidly to another post).

If interdisciplinary institutes are to be sustainable and grow they need to be given a voice in the governance structure commensurate with the strategic hopes and aspirations placed upon them.

Consideration needs to be given to how they are represented in the management structures and how beholden are they to existing disciplines. Get this wrong and they may be doomed to a slow decline from the moment the institute is created. How visible are they to governors, how are their successes (and failings) noted and actioned.

Having a champion is a great start for a new institute, but to be successful in the longer term it needs to be appropriately embedded in the management and governance structures.

To sum up:

  • Building of a shiny new building won’t in itself lead to an increase in interdisciplinary research
  • Our management systems put obstacles in place of interdisciplinary working
  • Our current measurements of success do not reward Interdisciplinary research
  • Champions can set them up and help them grow but appropriate management and governance is required to allow them to become sustainable.

This means that we need to:

  • Build budgets in a different way
  • Define additional performance measures
  • Think more broadly about ROI
  • Consider how they fit in management and governance structures**

At the outset of the planning process for a new institute it is crucial that as much (or more) thought must be given governance, management, planning and budgets as is given to the design of the building. That means having absolute clarity as to:

  • How governance, management and departmental structures will be adapted to facilitate the institute.
  • What the performance indicators for the institute will be and how these will contribute to the overall university performance.
  • What the annual planning and budgetary process for the institute will look like (especially how operational costs will be met and how money will flow between the institute and departments involved).
  • What income will be generated (from all sources) – thus establishing the ROI
  • The human resource requirements – How the institute will be staffed and how their time will be allocated.
  • Whether there will be an UG or PG teaching offer and how it will be delivered.
  • What support functions will be required (and how will these be paid for).
  • What reputational impact is expected and how will this be delivered through a communications and PR strategy.

Scrimping on management planning whilst the excitement of the architectural planning process takes place may prove a costly mistake.

Halpin Partnership can provide detailed management planning services to support your plans for a new interdisciplinary institute.

Our team can also assist with the review and restructure of an existing institute. These projects require the focussed time and expertise of a variety of experts from governance, finance, planning and campus services to research, marketing and commercialisation. We will bring together the right team to help you plan or review your institute with confidence.

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