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Strategy Under Pressure: University Planning

by John Britton, Susie Hills | Nov 3, 2021 | Strategy & Transformation

A Q&A with Joint CEO Susie Hills and new Consulting Fellow John Britton.

Susie Hills (SH): Universities are experiencing incredibly challenging times. How do you think university planning has changed over the past couple of years? Are the old planning processes still fit for purpose?

John Britton (JB): The pandemic has disrupted established business processes, with students landing in the UK, and metaphorically landing on the income and expense account at different times to those normally experienced and forecast. This has introduced significant extra risk. It’s not just what happens once they arrive. Universities had developed sophisticated statistical models to predict forward enrolments from early engagements in the admissions cycle, to completion.

This year’s cycle has seen an exaggeration of the ‘noise’ seen in the system previously. This has created an extremely fast-moving recruitment environment. I’ve had conversations this year with colleagues at other universities along the lines of: ‘We were hundreds short of students and then our competitor down the road released scores of students on the Saturday and now we are over target’.

A scan of the job market showed institutions hurriedly recruiting staff in August for a September start, when lead-in times for recruitment of academic staff are normally several months longer. Yes, some of this happens every year, but the extent of it was larger in 2021.

How do we ensure financial sustainability in this environment? And how do we ensure a good student experience? Planners have an important role, helping the university to see through the ‘fog of war’ by forecasting as best as possible, drawing on the intelligence that they pick up from their networks, and providing good information to inform the process.

We bring people together from across the organisation and get them working in aligned ways. We are also there to provide moral support to our colleagues. It is important, and a key theme acknowledged at Halpin, that in these tough times we show kindness and support to each other.

SH: How do you think universities will need to develop their planning processes over the coming year?

JB: Universities will need credible planning processes to help them assure partners that they are making progress towards clearly defined priorities. This is particularly true in an environment where sector restructuring is back on the table. Any institution that does not have a clear strategic plan, or is not implementing it effectively will, rightly, attract additional scrutiny from regulators and auditors.

There is risk in that situation that additional energy is drawn into providing assurance on an ad hoc basis, which is a further distraction from delivering the core business benefits of the university to students, research partners, and society in general. It sounds simple, but institutions are often not disciplined in following it: determine clear priorities, and relentlessly focus on delivering them.

SH: What should university planning teams be looking out for?

JB: It is important also that universities are not ‘asleep at the wheel’, in that the growing number of 18-year-olds and the volatility of Level 3 qualification outcomes mean that vigilance is required as previously held benchmarks or standards become outmoded. There are opportunities for universities that are analytic and fleet of foot during the recruitment cycle.

The long-awaited response to the Augar Review of university fees and funding wasn’t published as part of the budget announcements, but was highlighted by the government as being likely to be published ‘in the next few weeks’. What we have been expecting from that has changed a number of times, I suspect as civil servants have tested out ideas and found them to be less attractive than initially expected. If there are changes to fees, or student number controls are introduced these will create a shock to the system.

The solution to both of these challenges is effective ongoing change. Keep an eye on the market, and keep, through the annual planning process, ensuring that there is performance management and continued reorientation of the taught programme portfolio towards the market. As Atul Gawande says, “people underestimate the importance of diligence as a virtue”.

By being systemic and combining that with clear accountability and a leadership that is focused on the University’s strategic goals, incremental progress can be made each year. One of the many benefits of this is avoiding the sawtooth approach of waiting for a crisis and then having to take jarring, confrontational action.

SH: What do you think are the signs of a healthy and productive planning process?

JB: Integrated planning happens where all planning and budgeting activities are effectively linked, coordinated, and driven by the institution’s vision, mission, and academic priorities. These must be shaped by a strategic planning process that has engaged the university’s stakeholders and involved them in developing a shared vision.

How do we develop an effective annual planning round? Probably the most fundamental element is a senior team that is focused and minded to use the process to drive change. As Dave Brailsford says about producing sporting success: “You don’t just sign up for the goal. You sign up for the suffering too”. Genuine transformational change is hard work, particularly if there is not a culture of having done that before in the university. Persistence is needed in the face of adversity and challenge.

Planners have a fundamental and enduring role – that of ensuring that we have good processes that deliver efficient outcomes with the minimum overhead.

Routine is important in driving progress. If we can develop a progress that everyone understands well, we reduce the barriers to engagement with the process itself and let the process do its job of enabling the right conversations. So, we can help everyone involved by making the materials easy to understand and read (we can always develop them further as literacy with the process develops), having a genuine focus on priorities (which also helps to keep things simple), and developing a rhythm (people know that we focus on particular things a particular time of year and so come prepared and engaged with the subject). There will be bumps in the road, but if institutional commitment is strong then the process will deliver clear benefits which will further help to strengthen engagement.

John Britton is a Consulting Fellow at Halpin, the home of experts in higher education strategic planning and analytics.