A best practice approach to academic restructure and corporate services transformation at a research-intensive university (Part 1)

This article is the first in a two-part series co-authored by Mike Shore-Nye, Senior Vice-President and Registrar & Secretary at the University of Exeter, with Ariel Rainbow, Consulting Services Manager at NousCubane.

Following a period of significant growth at the university, and when planning for the next stage of its strategic development, Exeter’s leadership recognised the need to transform their institutional structures and environment in order to remain successful in an increasingly competitive sector. Major organisational change was needed to deliver a new 2030 strategy, but how could Exeter’s leadership achieve this with support from across the University’s community, rather than in opposition, and using a data-led approach?

In the first part of this case study, Exeter’s Senior Vice-President and Registrar & Secretary – and co-lead of the transformation – Mike Shore-Nye, talks us through Exeter’s approach.

After joining the UK’s Russell Group of research-intensive institutions in 2012, the University of Exeter solidified its strong position in global rankings and experienced rapid growth, almost doubling its student population over the next decade.

However, Exeter’s organisational structures and administrative functions did not advance at the same pace. At best, these were no longer fit for purpose in a much bigger institution, and at worst, were a primary cause of dissatisfaction and delay in the implementation of the university’s ambitious new strategy and operational improvements. Furthermore, Exeter’s positioning had changed through rapid growth and there was no longer a clear link between its administrative structures and the delivery of its institutional vision.

Mike reflects on the challenges facing Exeter at the time: “Translating strategic direction across the institution was becoming increasingly ineffectual. Our colleges were too small to be strategic, but too unwieldy to be operationally efficient and our professional services were struggling to align resources quickly enough to support our increasingly ambitious academic goals.

External Pressures

Perhaps in more forgiving circumstances, making the required organisational changes at Exeter to deliver its new strategy could have been achieved over the course of several years. Unfortunately, like universities the world over wanting to transform and invest, the context of sectoral financial challenges required Exeter to deliver ‘better services with less’ and at pace. Inflationary pressures and the resulting reduction in domestic student fees in real-terms, and the continuing competition for market share meant the University had to act quickly to enable the realignment of resources and to generate the investment needed to deliver major strategic change. Furthermore, this would need to be achieved in circumstances where HE sector issues were negatively impacting broader industrial relations across the UK.

Mike summarises: “The challenge facing our Professional Services Divisional Leadership Team was how best to approach the rapid, simultaneous delivery of academic restructure and professional services reconfiguration in a way which staff and other stakeholders felt invested in, rather than being prescribed to, and which ultimately resulted in a resilient organisational structure fit for future sector challenges.

Seizing an Opportunity

Exeter’s newly appointed President and Vice-Chancellor Professor Lisa Roberts led the development of an institutional strategy for 2030 which was co-created with the University community and called on the institution to prioritise finding solutions to make the world ‘healthier, fairer and more environmentally sustainable’.

Achieving this transformation required an organisational overhaul and a new structure that was designed to deliver on the strategy’s principles. From Exeter’s existing position, this meant re-aligning its faculties to its strategic themes, with a new professional services organisation underpinning them. In response, Mike and his team seized this opportunity to align Exeter’s operations more clearly with its academic mission, or as he puts it: “Our new strategy allowed us to do some of the things we needed to achieve, like improving operational efficiency whilst enhancing alignment of resources with the academic mission of the University. I also wanted us to achieve organisational resilience and centres of excellence with capability.

Several internal and external factors had to be considered as part of a restructuring, including how to bring staff (especially academic staff) truly on board as partners in the process, along with identifying the correct pace of change and building an organisation that would be sufficiently resilient to future sector challenges.

A Transparent, Collaborative Approach to Finding the Solution

At the centre of Exeter’s restructure was a move to three faculties from six colleges, with each taking a lead on one of the three strategic goals of the 2030 strategy. This was supported by embedding Professional Services partners from nine new divisions at a faculty level, and secondly, by enhancing the leadership capacity within disciplines through the creation of a new Head of Department professional services role.

Fundamentally, this major, institution-wide change, was achieved in a way that proactively overcame some of the significant resistance that had met previous change initiatives. Partly this was achieved by ‘walking the walk’ in terms of consistent commitment to genuine meaningful engagement. From the President and Vice-Chancellor down, those leading the transformation demonstrated their commitment to listening to and acting upon input from across the University community. In total, internal stakeholders provided more than 5,000 comments on aspects of the proposals – and there was a clear feedback loop in terms of changes being made because of this input.

But more tellingly, and in contrast to previous attempts, Exeter found the right solution with its academic stakeholders by ensuring the structural changes flowed from the strategic mission and a desire to enhance interdisciplinarity. The first step to achieving this was Exeter’s President and Vice-Chancellor presenting the proposal to its Senate and then the wider community and asking, openly, for ideas as to how to respond, which recast the exercise as one of genuine collaboration from the outset. The transformation team then proceeded to co-create its new design and build solutions alongside academic stakeholders at all levels of the institution. As Mike explains, “Our academic Senate tested and interrogated the plan for organisational redesign, and each new Faculty had a dedicated Programme Manager to facilitate direct engagement and a feedback process for staff and students.

Being upfront in engaging meaningfully and building consensus about the best way forward also allowed the transition to the new operating model to be achieved at a tremendous pace. The changes to both academic and professional services were achieved in just 9 months – a breakneck speed for any university. For Exeter, this meant an academic organisation that shifted from six colleges with over 40 academic units to three new Faculties comprising 25 departments and five institutes. For Professional Services, 12 directorates became nine new Divisions. All of this was implemented in parallel with an update to two-thirds of the university’s IT systems and underpinning processes.

Having described in this article how Exeter’s leadership used a collaborative approach to gain buy-in across the institution for its rapid transformation, the second part of this case study explores how insights from global peers, based on a unique common language and shared dataset were critical to realising a successful pace of change and building a resilient organisational structure fit for the future.

If you would like to discuss this case study in more detail or learn more about our global benchmarking membership and service effectiveness solutions, please contact us.