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What is and isn’t on the Strategy Agenda

The future of universities will be shaped by creativity and innovation rather than efficiency. By our ability to think around problems and not just through them. But do our strategies reach the mark? Are we keeping our heads, hearts and eyes on the horizon?

Similar conversations are happening in universities around the world: where are we now with our Strategy?

In some institutions, new arrivals at the top have coincided with strategy cycles, and the time is ripe to plan ahead for the next decade. Elsewhere, for those institutions in mid-cycle, there is in any case a compelling need to review and refresh what was put in place before the pandemic.

What I’m seeing in my conversations with universities on three continents is a shift in priorities. All those involved in setting strategy, not just senior leaders, are asking the same broad set of questions:

How can we be clear on our societal role?
How should we work with more students?
How can we diversify our income?
How do we sustain and enhance quality?
How could we invest in our people?
What do we need to do to keep our curriculum relevant?

Drivers that are higher up the priority list

The responses to these questions vary considerably according to institutional mission and position. Yet there are some key themes emerging:

Health and wellbeing, for students and staff, has become a key strategic driver.”

Health and wellbeing, for students and staff, has become a key strategic driver. Universities who show they put this first appeal not only to students who are concerned for their health security in a world attempting to recover from the shocks inflicted by Covid-19. They also demonstrate their people orientation, and their understanding that health gain sits alongside intellectual nourishment and educational attainment.

There also seems to be a race to take action on sustainability: environmental, financial, personal. This has become a focus for competitive differentiation worldwide. Many institutions wish to be seen as ‘the most environmentally-committed’, though there’s lots of heated debate going on internally about what this means.

Some institutions have used their sudden immersion in blended learning approaches as a trigger to reaching a wider demographic. Stanford University’s Open Loop initiative to offer 6 years of learning credit over a many decades has provoked fresh thinking around lifelong learning.

In the learning and teaching landscape, there’s evidence of new energy around the relationship between universities and their localities: the cities, businesses and communities on whose partnership universities now depend. This means change in curricula, in personalising learning and in building graduates’ capacity for being agents of change.

Tackling financial insecurity

Everywhere there seems to be tension between policymakers and university leaders in the shifting nature of the social and financial contract between universities and society. This plays out in constant tensions over who pays for what; between governmental priorities and institutional autonomy. As a result, strategy fits by necessity within an envelope of what is viable and realistic, whatever the dreams which fuel its aspirations.

Meanwhile, on a global scale, the younger population which desires higher education is rising, particularly in Asia. University strategies might be missing something if they fail to take note of the facts that Generation Z now comprises 30% of the world’s population, and that by 2030 70% of the global student body will be within 5 hours’ travel time of Singapore. This represents a challenge, and an opportunity to tackle at least some of the present financial insecurity.

If the key future generator of wealth is going to be ideas, creativity and innovation shouldn’t universities be prioritising this?”

Less acknowledged in many of the new emerging university strategies are some of the trends now shaping human activity which will have deep implications for how universities work.

The impact of the Internet of Things on smart buildings, campuses and cities will be huge. Artificial Intelligence will also affect all areas of academic and professional life in universities, and may require interdisciplinary approaches to understanding and interpreting where it will take us.

Perhaps most fascinating of all, and yet rarely mentioned in any strategic discourse on future challenges for universities, is the productivity-creativity inversion. If the key future generator of wealth is going to be ideas, creativity and innovation shouldn’t universities be prioritising this? And yet the very organisational warp and weft of universities seems based on efficiency.

How might an institution which is driven by creativity as a first priority actually look and feel?

And having pictured that, what kind of strategy is called for to make this happen?

Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

By Paul Gentle

Paul is the Academic Director at Invisible Grail. A leadership expert, Paul has dedicated the last twelve years to creating and delivering leadership development programmes in higher education.

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