Times of change as an opportunity to refocus on the core value proposition

One of the fallouts from a crisis is that it forces a rethink, but ultimately brings greater clarity around values and purpose. For universities this means understanding how resources are being directed at the core mission in a quickly changing world. In simple terms this means continuing to prioritise teaching and research. Broken down further these go into areas of student experience, graduate outcomes, industry partnerships, and overall community impact – all of which look quite different today than they did 12 months ago.

It is on these measures that universities often promote themselves to prospective students, as well as to governments to justify continued public investment. The question of the societal value proposition is ever more important as governments may ask how higher education can be delivered more cheaply in a budget-constrained post-pandemic world.

During a series of interviews conducted with university leaders, we found them increasingly aware of their role in their community. Universities drive unique strengths for a society. Despite their own budgetary pressures, there are three key areas where we have seen new or continued investment by universities.

1) Community support and engagement

In the immediate aftermath of major shutdowns in February/March 2020, universities were quick to act in donating PPE, funding research, providing volunteers and facilities. These resources were available to local municipalities, hospitals, and public health agencies to support the response. More broadly, universities were engaged in a much-needed education campaign for their local communities in understanding the risk, driving preventative actions, and clearing up confusion.

Since those early days, more discussions have taken place on the more medium to longer term role of higher education in local communities. For example, we quickly saw applications to health-related programs spike, and those institutions with already strong reputations in these areas reaped the benefit. What this clearly shows is the ability for a university to provide the capacity of education and skills required to fulfil the needs of its surrounding community.

Another example is the role institutions will need to play in the eventual economic recovery. It can be easy for budget-strapped governments to continue to favour spending on health at the expense of university grants. Leaders have quickly realized the need to provide a compelling offering such as re-skilling, micro-credentials and other offerings to complement core degree programs.

Whatever the specific activities prioritised, one thing is for certain: as a result of the pandemic no university can get away with making generic commitments to community engagement and support.

2) Teaching support for academics

The design and delivery of courses has long been seen as the ‘academic domain’ – and indeed when it comes to core curriculum and pedagogy that is where ultimate accountability remains. However, more institutions now understand the need to better enable their teaching faculty by ensuring professional support is available. This stemmed from the need for expertise to help academics transition from in-person to online learning. However longer-term questions remain on how institutions can optimize learning modes.

Can increased / more consistent support for academics provide a more reliable academic experience for students? Certainly not all academics can be expected to take on the task of understanding how to leverage the latest tools and techniques in their classrooms. Those institutions that are investing in their “teaching” mission through enhancing the in-classroom (whether on screen or in person) experience are more likely to support better learner outcomes.

Bridging the academic-administrative divide when it comes to teaching support won’t be easy, once pandemic pressures begin to recede. Returning to a world where the role of professional service staff was restricted to ‘handling the paperwork’ will be insufficient, given the significant difference administrators made during 2020 and beyond. But few universities have yet worked out how to mainstream the innovations around roles, duties and responsibilities that have come about.

3) Investments in student support

Universities quickly understood that in order to attract students into an uncertain online learning environment they would need to provide assurance to both first year and ongoing students. Investments in direct mentorship and support quickly followed, in many cases re-directing effort from other areas.

This shift is especially pronounced for larger research-intensive institutions where undergraduate students can often be treated as “mass consumers”. However, once enrolment was significantly threatened the focus on ensuring student success once students do arrive was suddenly crystal clear.

As the sector begins to slowly move into a new phase questions will inevitably be asked – and should be answered – around how to measure the return on this investment, and how to set the right future priorities. With finite and sometimes shrinking resources available, there has to be a mature conversation about which types of student support are most appropriate. This service is not immune from the temptation to argue that ‘more money, more staff’ is always the answer, nor is it an exception to the finding that increased spend does not automatically lead to improved outcomes.

Moving from immediate pressures to sustainable change

University leaders should be given credit for their responses to the crisis in all the areas noted above. Indeed, many teams are starting to feel a sense of fatigue at the shifts. The question becomes how a greater focus on these areas can be sustained as universities return to ‘normal’ over the coming year.

One way to do this is transparency of resourcing to understand where efforts can be re-directed from low/non-value add areas to those that more directly support the core value areas noted above.

To ensure that institutions are directing resources at the right areas, three things are required:

  • Knowledge of how the total portfolio of spend is allocated
  • Insight into whether relative spend across each area is appropriate for its purpose and intended benefit to the institution
  • A clear path to if/how funds might be reallocated either through growth or by shifting existing resources

The UniForum programme is focused on providing leaders with just this type of knowledge and insight through robust data collection and analytics, along with a community of peers with which to share strategies and approaches to delivering real change.