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The Future for University Strategies

  • 19 April 2019
  • By Dr Mike Baxter

A guest blog kindly contributed by Dr Mike Baxter, Goal Atlas Ltd.

In my recent analysis of the published strategies of 52 UK universities (University Strategy 2020), I discovered that almost 63% of university strategies have end dates in 2019, 2020 or 2021 and hence will need to be re-written and re-launched over the next few years. This is at a time when, according to Prof Chris Husbands, Vice Chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University, in a Radio 4 interview with Branwen Jeffreys “We are in a more financially exposed position than anyone in a leadership position has ever had to deal with”. The sector faces huge challenges; marketplace competition, changes in financial models and increasingly demanding ‘customers’. This is, therefore, a critical time for strategic thinking in the university sector. So how should universities be preparing to write their strategies for the third decade of the third millennium? How can institutions develop the powerful, effective strategies required to respond to future challenges? What can we expect the future to hold? From my research I conclude that there are three drivers that will impact future university strategy development:

1 Strategy and strategic thinking will become much more important in the sector. Whenever an organisation faces disruption, or even uncertainty, it becomes more important that budget is spent wisely and resources are deployed well. This requires careful analysis, clear decision-making and focused action. This is the stuff of strategy. In turbulent times, not only do universities need to be managed well, they also need to be seen to be managed well. This is a key role for strategy: providing a logical, consistent and coherent rationale for the decisions made and actions taken. Strategies across the institution will only need to be aligned with each other, but will need to be innovative, agile and drivers of real change. This will require core activities to be prioritised, performance of strategic initiatives to be properly measured, and staff and other stakeholders to be actively engaged throughout the strategy lifecycle.

2 The time has come for strategy to start to have bite.
University strategies, I believe, will become increasingly honest and transparent about the challenges they face and increasingly focused about how they intend to respond. The tendency towards more ‘bite’ will be driven by two factors:

i. Planning maturity. In many universities, planning and resource allocation has become a much more systematic and evidence-based annual process, and this ‘planning maturity’ means that over the next few years, strategy and planning should become two sides of the same coin. Strategic priorities will need to drive planning priorities. Planners will need greater clarity from strategists about what their priorities actually mean. Planners will play a bigger role in sense-checking and validating strategic decisions. In short, planning maturity will demand greater strategic maturity. Or more bluntly, strategic immaturity will be increasingly exposed by planning maturity.

ii. The professionalising of strategy. Strategy management has become a professional function within most universities, continuing a longer trend towards professionalising university management as a whole. With the professionalising of the strategy design and development process, strategies will become clearer and simpler to understand, more tightly focussed, better disseminated, more rigorously tracked and incentivised, and hence more widely adopted. By ensuring strategies are well-aligned, prioritised and readily adopted across the organisation, university strategy will drive greater change and faster change.

You can find the full report, University Strategy 2020: Analysis and benchmarking of the strategies of UK Universities at Goal Atlas Ltd.

3 The time has come for strategy to start to have impact.
UK Universities currently enjoy a world-leading status: we have roughly 1% of the world’s population and somewhere between 11% and 40% of the world’s top universities (according to different data sets in the THE World University Rankings and the QS World University Rankings). This will only continue if we decide how we seek to be world-leading and focus our efforts and resources at achieving it. Clearly, this is an internal management issue for universities but it is also a vital issue for the management of external relationships by universities. Since the decision by the Office for National Statistics at the end of 2018 to include a proportion of student loans as government expenditure, universities now need to make their case for public funding alongside the NHS, social care, schools and policing. From 2019 onwards, perhaps as never before, this needs to have a strategic clarity about the purpose of universities, the activities universities will focus their efforts on and the benefits this will bring to the country.

1 comment

  1. John Baker says:

    Interesting blog, and look forward to the whole report.

    I was intrigued by your separation of strategy & planning, as my sense, as per the professional association that has developed to support this function in UK HE – HESPA ( is that both are supported and developed by the same set of colleagues within many institutions.

    “Planners will need greater clarity from strategists about what their priorities actually mean”

    Or did you mean by planning, what might be called budgeting, or resource allocation?

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