The external challenges faced by universities over the last two years must be unprecedented in scale and impact at least since the Second World War. As with other sections of society, staff and students have risen to the challenges and universities in the UK have proved to be remarkably resilient.

Amidst the need to plan for rapid change, and to respond in an agile way as the pandemic has unfolded, universities have continued with updating their longer term strategic plans. Of the universities I have been working with through the pandemic, UEL, SOAS and the OU are at various stages in the process, and I see that my former university UCL is in the consultation phase. Plenty of other universities will be in the same position. A really interesting discussion of the kinds of short term adaptations to plans that institutions are making can be found here: Strategy Under Pressure: University Planning.

It could be argued of course that the impact of the pandemic is such that long term strategic planning has no place, and the universities should focus on the short term. I disagree.

General Eisenhower is reputed to have said that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable. Whether he said it or not, I think it’s a wise view on two counts. In the first place, having a plan helps you to know how to react and adapt when reality disrupts your plan, without accidentally throwing the overall goal out of the window. In the second place, the process is just as important as the outcome, and I think that’s particularly true of people-based organisations like universities, where strategic goals can only really be achieved if the community is behind them.

A good strategic plan will be based on a thorough review of the institution’s capabilities and the external environment, broad and deep engagement with the university community and stakeholders, a persuasive and exciting presentation of the goals and objectives, targets and measures, and organizational capacity to translate the strategy into annual plans, down to the level of individual departments.
All that takes time and effort, and implementation is also a “long game” given the cycle times for universities (years for a single research project or one cohort on a degree).

In addition to Eisenhower’s points, I would argue that in a university context the effort is even more indispensable given the multiplicity of objectives that universities can, should and do embrace (learning and teaching, research, enterprise, local regeneration, widening participation, equality and diversity, lifelong learning, sustainability, etc.) and the risk that lack of strategy leads to time and resources being spread too thinly to achieve anything satisfactorily.

For those reasons, I think long term planning is here to stay.

So, what learning can we take from the pandemic to modify our approach to strategic planning? I am sure there are many points but I will just highlight two:

1. When the imperative is strong enough, universities can make changes in a matter of weeks that appeared to be impossible. If you have a big goal to achieve, which will be a real stretch for the organisation, you need to make a compelling case for change, including the difficult conversations over what needs to be postponed or stopped in the meantime to focus resources.

2. Major change is only possible with the backing of the university community. We have seen how a crisis has enabled that to happen, university management teams need to reflect on how to build that kind of support for change without that kind of external imperative.

In summary, planning for the long term is just as indispensable as it always has been, but there is learning we can take from the pandemic experience, and there may be a need for greater agility in responding to changes in circumstances.

Rex Knight is a Senior Advisor for Halpin, the home of experts in higher education strategy and transformation.