Higher Education is one of Whitecap’s areas of specialist expertise. In this blog, our HE lead Lal Tawney shares his thoughts on the challenges facing the sector and what practical steps senior leaders of UK universities can take. Lal is a strategy specialist and change expert with vast experience across the education sector. He has worked with The Open University, London South Bank University and The British Council with recent projects in international strategy development, customer journey design, operating model design, and organisational digital enablement.



University Vice Chancellors and their teams are wrestling with the challenges that 2018 will bring. There has been turbulence and further change even in the first days of 2018 – a new minister and team at the Department for Education – to add to the external focus on Vice Chancellor’s pay, the expected emerging “teeth” of the new regulator in England, the growing and much needed focus on value for money, the ongoing debate about free speech in universities, the development of another set of measures known as the Knowledge Exchange Framework, the growth of new “products” such as apprenticeship degrees and 2 year degrees, the rise of the robots, the potential of a HE funding review, a likely reduction in student applications, a steady decline in part time students, as well as many other well documented issues that the Higher Education sector is facing.

2017 was a challenging year for the sector. We predict 2018 being an even more challenging year for the sector!

So having the privileged position of working with and advising universities (but having not to run a university), we’ve considered how Vice Chancellors and their teams cope with some of the current market turbulence. The focus is about having “your house in order” and being prepared – here are our three recommendations.

1. Understand and Monitor the University’s Cost Base

The focus on value for money is the one of the big themes in 2018. There will be much discussion on what this means and how this is best measured.

However, the value that a student gains is partially a function of the University’s overall efficiency and effectiveness. This is not a new theme to the sector so Vice Chancellors and their teams should have a clear understanding of the cost of key activities of their university, and understand how these have changed over time and why. Typical questions that should be answered include:

–  What is the cost to acquire a new undergraduate student? How does this differ between different students (e.g. UK vs International)?

–  What is the cost to teach a student? How does this differ by programme or course?

–  What is the cost to provide non-academic support to a student?

–  What are the most expensive activities in the student experience?

The university that has great data on costs and a strong management focus on effectiveness is in an ideal position to eliminate inefficiencies and waste, thus being able to provide greater value to their students. 

2. Stress Test the University Strategy

This is an exercise for the senior leadership to work through together. Firstly, whilst there is some uncertainty in the sector (e.g. the future of funding), some potential key scenarios need to be identified by the leadership team based on their assumptions. The stress test is a form of scenario analysis which asks what happens to the university’s financial position when under certain stresses.

This exercise should be undertaken both on a regular basis e.g. when formally monitoring progress against the plan, and when there is external stimuli to warrant it. The expected turbulence in the market should be enough stimuli to run the exercise.

The areas of focus could include:

–  Pricing: E.g. what would happen if the student fees were capped? Say, if they were capped at £7000 per year in England?

–  Student Recruitment: E.g. what would happen if new student numbers reduced by 10%?

–  Funding: E.g. what would happen if any non-student funding sources were reduced by 10%?

3. Review the Effectiveness of the Board of Governors

A tough one, however, turbulent times will require a strong, effective board of governors to provide appropriate support and challenge. In an increasingly uncertain and less stable operating environment, universities must be increasingly mindful of the opportunities and risks.

Therefore, governing boards need to ensure the key risks have been identified and are effectively managed, and to make sure the university has a clear strategic focus. In addition, the size, mix of skills and experience, and diversity of governing board membership must be appropriate to discharge its roles and responsibilities.

The external focus on Vice Chancellors pay is likely to have brought a consideration of the effectiveness of the remuneration committee. However, this should be considered for the governing board.

Governing boards must conduct a regular, full and robust review of their effectiveness. Evaluation of the board’s own effectiveness can be done either by way of self-assessment or an external assessment to ensure that the board is working in a manner consistent with best practices.

In Summary

Vice Chancellors and their teams will have lots to do to tackle the challenges that will come their way in 2018. Our recommendation is undertake three actions to be prepared: 1. Understand and Monitor the University’s Cost Base 2. Stress Test the University Strategy 3. Review the Effectiveness of the Board of Governors.

Get In Contact

In 2018 Whitecap will be hosting some events for senior leaders in Higher Education, please get in touch to request being added to the invite list.