Universities are increasingly finding themselves having to perform vastly different roles than the ones they have traditionally been associated with. Not only is the university expected to be an educator and researcher, it is more and more expected to become an economic driver, business developer, strategic advisor, career counsellor and community champion. All this comes at the same time as increased social and economic complexities.
Progress in these areas must be addressed through effective strategic planning efforts and will include economic development focus, business engagement, knowledge transfer partnerships, widening participation, LEP engagement, applied research and/or technology transfer, etc. However, any university that engages in these areas of economic transformation without first understanding the underlying structures and dynamics of their local economy is almost guaranteed to end up with the wrong solutions. The question is: how can universities start off with the right foundational assumptions so that their strategies for enhancing economic competitiveness will be effective?
GuildHE Strategic Planning Event
It was with these thoughts in mind that I headed to Ashridge House on 16th January with Trevor Thorne, Director of Southampton Solent University’s Marketing and Communications Service, for the GuildHE Strategic Planning Event. GuildHE is one of the two recognised representative bodies for higher education in the UK, and amongst other aims they have a vision of a sector which, “enhances the UK’s economic competitiveness”.
In our presentation, University LMI Use in Social & Economic Transformation, Trevor and I emphasised how, given the challenges mentioned above, new narratives need to be developed to communicate opportunity and target activity to maximise the effectiveness of a university’s role in the economy.
Universities have traditionally been seen as supply-driven producers of workforce talent. That is, they supply the market with labour, without necessarily taking into account the needs and demands of the market. However, this model is becoming increasingly outdated, as universities find themselves operating in a more complex economic environment where the supply (and ouput) of courses and degrees must be considered against the demands of learners, businesses and alignment with the local, regional and/or national economy. As such, institutions can no longer view themselves in such a linear supply fashion, but must take a larger and more deliberate role in balancing the various supply/demand components of education and the labour market.
Another of the major problems with the old narrative is that strategic plans have been too readily put together with an over-emphasis on the far distant future, rather than on the current situation. There is a need for balance between the need for current, relevant plans that address the here and now (and near-term changes), yet at the same time equip the next generation of administrators with the flexibility to adjust the plan and vision when changes do occur.
Strategies are only as good as the actionable implementation that can be achieved from them. As such, administrators must also balance what can sometimes be seen as ambiguous strategic vision with the ability for tactical implementation to realize the vision.
What to do?
Southampton Solent University is an example of a university that is not only taking the new economic challenges seriously, but is also looking for new strategic methods to achieve their aims. As far as addressing the challenges is concerned, the university set itself the following goals:
- Achieve excellent graduate level employment
- Better understand regional labour market following the demise of SEEDA
- Improve income through better employer engagement
- Develop a demand-led curriculum model
- Develop the university’s role as an “RDA” through relationships with LEPs and other business organisations
- Contribute to regeneration of regional economy
Easier said than done, of course, but one of the ways the university went about tackling these goals was to commission EMSI to analyse the labour market in their region. The resulting report, Identifying Target Industries in the Southampton Solent Region, used Labour Market Information (LMI) to provide the university with the following insight and analysis:
- An initial scan of high economic potential industries
- A focus for strategic development and planning activities
- A baseline of the region’s industry sector economy
- First steps towards building industry cluster strategies
- A detailed data analysis of sector opportunity in South Central England
- An indication of where the best potential opportunities to grow and shape the region are
The report is now forming part of the basis of Southampton Solent’s thinking in a number of areas, including curriculum development and developing a business strategy for employer engagement.
University strategic planning aimed at driving the economy must be based on a sound understanding of what is happening in the economy – not just the national economy, but the local and regional economy in which the institution is situated. As demonstrated by its use at Southampton Solent University, detailed LMI and expert analysis of the data is able to provide this understanding and is therefore an essential component for any university seeking to implement a joined up and effective strategy to take its place as a key regional economic driver.
In recent years, LMI has become more widely available than ever before. This really is opportune since the need for good LMI to shape demand-driven economic strategies has never been greater. As Trevor and I emphasised to the audience at the GuildHE event, universities have a great opportunity to use what is now available to them, in order to answer the challenges that they now face. The old narratives just won’t work. Instead, what is needed in the higher education sector is a new methodology – a new narrative – which seeks to:
- Understand and leverage LMI and its uses to elevate the dialogue amongst civic partners, learners and the public
- Address 21st Century issues with 21st Century approaches and solutions
- Replace the old supply-driven thinking, which is increasingly leading to misaligned skills in the workplace
- Shift perspective from supply-driven to demand-driven strategies