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

by | Oct 5, 2018 | Strategy & Transformation

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