A Differentiated Future

Five key themes have emerged from PA consulting's latest survey, pointing towards a very different Higher Education sector in years to come
Credit: PA Consulting

Each year PA consulting invites leaders of UK universities to share their views and plans on a wide range of current and future issues. In addition to the long-term effects of COVID-led measures, potential changes in the market and policy environment for universities, and expectations for the sector over the coming years, this year's findings highlight important differences from previous years.

Vice-chancellors are building on the unexpected capacity for rapid innovation, adaptability, and agency that they discovered through the COVID-19 experience to secure a differentiated future in a fast-moving and unpredictable world.

Five key themes have emerged, pointing towards a very different Higher Education (HE) sector in years to come:

Mission-led strategic differentiation

Universities are increasingly differentiating themselves and building their identities in terms of their social and economic engagement and impact in their local region. In a significant shift, UK university strategies for differentiation and sustainability have changed, as many move away from focusing on their competitive standings, instead focusing on strategies that seek to have a societal and economic impact on their local communities.

As a testament to this, 60% of vice-chancellors place ‘recruitment from under-represented and/or local student groups’ as a first or second key priority. Additionally, 45% rank ‘supporting local or economic and workforce needs’ as another top priority. In contrast, only 23% rank ‘recruiting only the academically most able students’ and 5% emplace focus on ‘leading international research developments’ as key priorities.

Enterprise and autonomy

This shift in strategies is leading a growing number of universities to secure their student recruitment, research and business services income through direct arrangements with local employers, businesses and development agencies. As a result, they are reducing their vulnerabilities to mainstream public funding source reductions, protecting their economic autonomy.

There are various inherent reasons for this, however, amongst vice-chancellors, 63% believe their economic security is at most jeopardy due to the potential reduction in regulation of home undergraduate tuition fees. Moreover, the prospect of increased student admission controls and the introduction of ‘poor value’ student course labels also present as a major risk.


Consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic

The pandemic redetermined how universities needed to educate, however almost no institutions plan to retain an entirely remote approach. Instead, the vast majority (90%) plan to introduce a hybrid approach, combining the flexibility of online learning with the personalised face to face experience of on-site teaching.

There was also a widespread consensus that COVID-led innovations have improved communications and support; 45% stipulating that will be keeping measures introduced to enhance student and staff wellbeing and mental health support, for example through online monitoring tools.


A digitally-enabled experience

As both ministers and the media allude to the idea that students may be denied on-site lectures for the foreseeable future, vice-chancellors look to respond, working on provisions that optimise the balance between in-person and online teaching. This focus on better hybridity of higher education is also expected to represent the new patterns of studying, with an increased number of students looking at part-time, working and commuting as a more desirable way to complete their degrees.


A new generation of leaders

A notable feature of the findings is the significant number of either newly appointed and/or soon-to-retire vice-chancellors across UK universities. This transitional period could be put down to the crisis of morality and job satisfaction in roles which many determined as ‘exhausting, thankless and demoralising’. This in part imports an element of apprehension for universities and university leaders, with a loss of experienced leadership at the helm.

However, although the reasonings for the exceptionally high turn-over depict a rather dismal picture, there can also be positive connotations to be drawn. Predominantly, the emergence of a new generation of leaders, including a higher proportion of women, adopting different styles of leadership to their predecessors. The expectation being that these new leaders will trend away from focusing on political pressures, and instead focus more on the new interests and strategies of their own institutions.


The survey provides insights into the ongoing and upcoming transitions in operation, objective and aims of universities. As such, it will be a useful tool from which government and public sector organisations can formulate their higher education strategies behind, utilising the themes and outcomes highlighted to help UK universities to thrive.  

Download the report to learn about the key themes driving a more differentiated, open, adaptive and resilient university system.

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