Halpin Consulting Fellow Ewart Wooldridge CBE was the founding Chief Executive from 2003 to 2013 of the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, set up to play a key role in developing UK and international HE leaders and their institutions. He has a well-established portfolio of consultancy, advisory and governance roles in the HE sector. He has strong experience in governance development, having devised the Leadership Foundation Governor Development Programme jointly with the CUC, and designed and run the highly successful VC/Chair retreats for the LF. He has been Deputy Chair of Council at the Institute of Education, London, a member of the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales and is now on the Council of St Georges University of London and Chair of their Remuneration Committee.

Ewart spoke to Joint CEO Susie Hills to discuss how boards should approach university strategy, post-pandemic.

Susie: Ewart, you undertook research on Covid-19 and leadership in higher education. How do you think Covid-19 will change universities’ strategic plans?

Ewart: Every university will have to rethink or amend their strategic plans following the Covid experience. How the student experience is delivered will change fundamentally. There will be a major shift in the balance between online and face-to-face learning. The balance for staff between working on campus and at home will have to be kept under review, but it will certainly not go back to pre-Covid arrangements. Campuses will be used in different ways. And lurking behind all of this is the issue of value for money. Universities have got to demonstrate that the £9,500 a year deal for the student experience still delivers, but in a different way. Students have got to be able to see how that deal – or psychological contract – still holds good, and that means tangible strategic changes.

How can Boards and Executive teams best work together to develop strategic plans?

They have to start by engaging differently with staff and students. They have to create a strategy in which staff and students recognise their impact and can influence straight away. The strategy should start with a clear vision and set of values that they can identify with. It should be distinctive and innovative, and not shy away from the difficult choices that may have to be made.

This may mean opening up more the relationship between the Board and the staff and students, and the Board and the Executive. Particularly in the next year or so, Boards will need to try and offload some of their assurance and monitoring responsibilities onto Committees, so that they can focus on the core strategic dialogue. The door into the Boardroom needs to be opened more widely so that more staff and students actually understand what goes on behind it. Very few really understand it at present.

Do you think strategic planning should be externally facilitated? Why? What are the pros and cons of it?

Yes, I do, but not to the point that the Board and Executive lose ownership of it.

At the beginning of the process, an initial objective assessment with the help of a skilful facilitator is hugely beneficial. It will bring a freshness of perspective to those whose thinking may be trapped in outdated places. They will be challenged to envisage many different scenarios. Once that process has been completed, many institutions should simply revert to handling it themselves. Others may find it helpful to take back their partly formed strategy to the same facilitator a second time to test it out – if only to check that it is challenging enough and achievable.

How can Boards ensure they are getting the appropriate stakeholder input into strategic planning – staff, students and wider stakeholders?

By undertaking full and intensive stakeholder assessments – certainly by survey and then also through intense engagement with different groups.

And get them enthused by the process – by the style of engagement, preferably face to face again at last. Use lively and creative ways of depicting the future scenarios. And make it fun – there is too much grim news around!

Remember all the positive lessons of Covid. A lot of those were about innovative methods of engagement with students and staff. And in so many ways, universities came into their own about how they found new ways of Civic and stakeholder engagement. They were often the crucial link in the local and regional delivery.

It has been said that many universities’ strategies look alike – how can Boards better understand how their institution is truly distinctive?

In a word, keep it simple. Root it as far as possible in the specific set of circumstances that surround the institution – its place, its people, its past, as well as its unique future. Keep the destination as simple as possible, underpinned by clear ambitions. Avoid overcomplexity.

A sense of place is vital. All the features that uniquely create the quintessence of a particular university and its surrounding population need to be brought together in some bold statements. Of course, there also has to be the case made post-Covid for the global, virtual institution by almost every university, but in most cases this is unlikely to be the starting point in the search for uniqueness.

Any final words of advice?

Yes, although it’s probably an overused word, the strategy has to be agile. It has to have an inbuilt capacity to flex in the event of significant change. Its starting assumption is that for the foreseeable future, uncertainty is the norm. The universities that will thrive are the ones who have strategies that can almost reinvent themselves as they go. But the overriding vision for the university needs to stretch forward to at least 2030.

Ewart Wooldridge CBE is a Consulting Fellow for Halpin, the home of experts in higher education governance. To discuss your particular needs or challenges, get in touch.