Will UK universities need a new approach to strategic planning?
It is just as well that UK universities are filled with, and run by, bright people. Just when they might have thought they had worked out how to improve their reputation – many made significant gains in the 2015 THE and QS rankings – the UK government decides to change the rules, or at least issue a Green Paper with a view to changing the rules. It is about consultation at this stage but the Green Paper does signal a fundamental change which will impact on the strategy and planning of many HEIs.
A bit of scene setting first. Many UK universities, outside of the research powerhouses like Oxbridge and Imperial, derive a majority of their income from teaching. However, their reputation – particularly international reputation, which is becoming increasingly important – is based far more on their research. For many institutions, research – and the promotion of it – has become a clear priority and, as a consequence, for many academics, building a research profile is more important for career and personal interest than teaching students – even if this is what pays the wages. As the Green Paper itself says, ‘teaching has been regarded as a poor cousin to academic research’.
Belatedly – and, in our view, positively – the proposed new Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) is intended, amongst other things, to start redressing the balance. Over time, according to the principles behind TEF, universities will be categorised in one of several levels for ‘teaching quality’.
If a university finds itself in the bottom rung, that is likely to have a major impact. Not only will it be unable to raise tuition fees (and may have to reduce them), its teaching quality designation will deter large numbers of high-quality students from applying. The institution will run a real risk of a downward spiral, where lesser quality students, a low ranking for teaching quality, and constrained finances could create real problems. The Green Paper is quite open about this possibility – ‘Eventually, we anticipate some lower quality providers withdrawing from the sector, leaving space for new entrants, and raising quality overall’. It’s worth questioning whether students should be paying ‘extra’ for the quality of teaching that they might expect as a matter of course, but that’s a different topic and a different blog.
Consider also the situation at the other end of the spectrum. Those universities with the highest ranking could well be overwhelmed with applications. This would put a huge strain on admissions systems and staff, trying to cope with large increases in the volume of applications, and potentially risking more disputed decisions on who to offer places to.
Now the good news; there is time (some) to prepare. The government is proposing that the first version of TEF is piloted in 2016 and has a more limited scope in its first two years. Planning and Strategy teams, however, should start evaluating its potential impact now, and developing alternative scenarios for their operating models. In turn, Marketing teams can start to consider how their institutional propositions might need to be adjusted.
And a good start point; the robustness of existing data about teaching quality for each institution. The National Students Survey (NSS) records scores for ‘assessment and feedback’ and these have traditionally been the area of the student experience with the lowest satisfaction levels. Now is certainly the time to ensure that any shortcomings are identified and addressed.