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Higher Education Strategy Round-Up: Your Go-To Guide

by Emily Owen | Jul 6, 2023 | Strategy & Transformation

Strategy. It’s a word we love to use, but one we’re perhaps less keen to implement meaningfully. Most universities have one, but many don’t. Broadly speaking, a strategy denotes where an organisation is now, where it wants to be, and how it might get there. Some appreciate the intricacies of strategy creation, whilst others are convinced they can be put together in half an hour over a cup of tea. From language and content to image and length, this is Halpin’s round-up of strategies, plans and manifestos for sector domination.

Thinking strategically in a complex environment

It is now commonplace within the higher education (HE) sector for universities to engage with some form of strategy – whether that be a formal document, or a list of priorities embedded on a ‘Why study with us?’ page. Of the 200+ UK HEIs we investigated, 71% had a strategic document readily available. Of these, nine out of ten had applied a timeframe.

Some are being enacted militantly with accompanying KPIs, whilst others are abandoned altogether, with end years that have long passed. Whilst it’s okay if it does all go pear-shaped (it happens), a strategy should define an organisation’s purpose and energise the work of every colleague. A well-refined strategy can be the thread that holds each function in place.

But where did the need for strategies arise? We can consider two influences:

  • The so-called ‘Jarratt report’ of 1985 positioned universities as factory-like enterprises with students as the customer – treating them as a business and prompting an increase in managerialism.
  • The sector operates in a VUCA environment – one that is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous – and a robust strategy can make this easier to navigate.

Not to mention an uncertain regulatory landscape, rising costs, and a sometimes unsupportive political environment. But it’s not all doom and gloom. Universities are also a key asset to the UK’s economic position and its potential for growth. Whether it’s the sector’s ‘world-class’ provision, ‘global perspective’ or the prospect of being a ‘science super-power’, effective strategy could be the catalyst.

It’s what’s inside that counts

To be effective, strategy must be relevant and representative of the climate the ‘business’ is in. Prior to the current refresh, lots of strategies had ended in 2019 – timely, given that the pandemic was about to show us what living in a VUCA world really means!

Typically, we’ll see a vision, a mission, and around five core values. The International Institute for Management Development (IMD) even defines different uses of strategy. Universities should perhaps favour ‘strategy as planning’ and ‘strategy as redefining one’s competitive domain’, but ‘reinforcing core competencies’ seems to be the go-to as well. Some may even view strategy as an extension of their marketing campaigns.

These might be accompanied by key pillars or themes. For the more creative among us, even a ‘Triple Helix’ approach. Interestingly, however, performance indicators are rare, or at least not published alongside the public-facing documents. One university is differentiated by publishing its 2026 KPIs, but some appear to be all talk and no… metrics.

Enablers are also a key accompaniment. People, finance, digital, infrastructure – the list goes on. But who is strategy really for? Has a student ever looked at one? It’s important to remember the purpose of the university amidst the temptation to subscribe to the corporate lexicon. One strategy stood out as a great example, embedding the institution’s academic offering within its very design.

Strategy shouldn’t create administrative clones: that’s not what strategic planning is about. But it should unite everybody under a single purpose. Just like the catchy slogans we know of a well-marketed brand, the vision and mission of the university should be on the tip of everybody’s tongue.

Cliché eats strategy for breakfast

You’ve heard of culture eating strategy for breakfast, but what about cliché? When you think about strategy, what are the words that come to mind? University strategies can be very language-heavy. To borrow an example from our international neighbours, the University of Texas’ strategy comes in at a huge 25,000 words. That’s more than twice the size of the average undergraduate dissertation.

A quick Google search even reveals a Strategy Dictionary, ranging from ‘Collaboration’ in the Cs to ‘Goals’ in the Gs. It is full of clichés and buzz words – many of which will be familiar to the university strategy reader. At Halpin, we even have the ‘Cliché Bin’, and ‘innovative’ is a definite no-go…

In many ways, we cannot blame them. It’s pretty hard to cover people, digital, estates, EDI, global engagement and finance in one sleek phrase. These vocabulary favourites only really become a problem when they fail to assert robust meaning, and when there is a gap between what they promise to deliver and the current reality of that delivery.

In an HE landscape that changes so frequently, universities can be forgiven for having an air of mystery about their strategies. Vagueness of language is needed in an environment that demands flexibility: it’s allowed to be idealistic and aspirational. But it must carry real meaning to be effective. Balance is key.

What’s in a name?

Of course, there is the all-important name. For some, it’s simply ‘vision for *insert year in distant but not-too-distant future*’ and for others, just ‘university strategy’. It does what it says on the tin.

Some use the name to embed the strategy’s envisioned influence. The university might not only exist for its students, but also for the ‘public good’, or they might use it to take ownership of an imagined future state.

Like any good campaign, the names that are short, snappy, hyperbolic, and memorable often go down best. But there is also merit in simplicity. Being clear about what the content stands for and what it intends to drive can be just as compelling.

Never judge a strategy by its cover

Whilst we usually reserve this phrase for books, most strategies we found use some form of visual design to add another layer to the presentation of their plans.

Images are important. They can showcase the campus, represent the students that study there, or show off a shiny new research lab. Shapes and graphics seem to be popular too. If it doesn’t contain arrows and some kind of matrix, you’re probably looking in the wrong place.

With most universities rightfully being reluctant to print their strategies and publishing them online instead, presentation has never been more important. For one university, strategy is housed in its own online portal – an interactive space, complete with videos. In this one, the arrows even move. For another, the physical reading experience is recreated. As the user clicks to turn the page, they are met by the sound of paper crumpling. It’s tactile and fun to navigate.

And speaking of breakfast, how digestible are university strategies? A long document can struggle to retain interest, but a one-pager may fail to include the level of detail needed. It’s important to make sure that a strategic document is visually appealing, but considerate of the reader experience too – or risk it being destined to the virtual bookshelf.

All in good time

When Mike Baxter conducted his analysis of university strategies a few years back, he found that nearly 63% of strategies had end dates in 2019, 2020, or 2021, foreseeing their refresh. And refresh they did!

Of the institutions we looked at, 25% had published strategies ending in 2030, and for the 23% with a shorter-term view, 2025. A surprising 11% were out of date.

Some end years seem random, with 10% ending in 2027. But if you do decide to introduce a ten-year plan mid-decade, your end date is likely to look arbitrary.

2030 does seem an appropriate year. The turn of the decade: the perfect time for something new and a chance to reflect on progress as it approaches. In a post-pandemic context, however, it is no surprise that some universities have opted for something more short-term.

Interestingly, there may even be a link between institution type and the difference in strategy lengths. Of those ending in 2030, for example, 26% come from institutions in the Russell Group, while only 16% are from post-92s. Of those ending in 2025, this skew is reversed. Perhaps the core characteristics of an institution – whether these concern research, finances, demographics, or otherwise – also determine the type of planning that is most appropriate.

Some final thoughts

No matter what it looks like, what it is called, or when it ends, it is how a strategy is enacted that is most important. The strategies that are the most successful are the ones that are brought to life by the university community they define. We certainly have some ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’. Despite the heavy use of cliché in this article, for example, we wouldn’t recommend the same for a strategic plan! We must also acknowledge that some uncertainty in the sector at present can also make long-term planning really difficult.

However, a well-refined strategy that represents the students, staff, and the society it is created to serve, can in itself be an incredible asset for a university. Something that weaves all facets of an institution together – and something that everyone can bring to life.

Halpin works with universities across four key areas including strategy creation and consultation under our Strategy & Transformation strand. If you are seeking expert consultancy contact us to find out how we can help.