The summer has seen the start of a period of some change for us all. Our University must evolve in order to tackle the challenges that the sector is facing now and in coming years. Our continuing academic mission as educators and researchers relies upon developing an institution that is resilient, financially sustainable and agile. It must be designed, resourced and enabled to succeed. In the first post of our new ULT blog we outline our vision and approach to the Transformation Programme
What is Institutional Transformation?
As an institution and a sector we are facing a number of challenges. We are not alone in this. The majority of universities have had to tackle similar issues or are currently doing so. In the last decade student choice and expectations have changed dramatically. There have been significant changes in funding, which have further increased our reliance on student fee income and the competition for diminished research funds is even fiercer.
At a time of significant competition, we must look carefully at the financial viability and strategic significance of all of our activities. We must also face up to the facts of our comparative performance: some of our disciplines are, according to external and significant measures such as the REF, at the very top of their fields, but others are less successful.
We have much of which we can be proud. We have areas everyone would recognise as world-class in research and education. Our record on widening participation, student-centred teaching and student support is very strong and our dedicated and hard-working staff are determined to continue to improve this.
But according to a number of measures our performance has weakened compared to our key competitors. Acknowledging this is important and we must resist being complacent and change-averse. We must also be honest about the significant challenges that must be addressed.
We haven’t necessarily ‘become worse’ at anything, but it is a fact that other universities have improved more quickly, sometimes overtaking us in areas in which we used to excel. This situation has taken years to develop, and many of the structural and financial issues we face now result from the slowness to adapt that our staff and other observers recognised and emphasised in the Strategic Conversation.
If the university described in the Strategic Plan is to be achieved, a significant transformation is required and work has been focused on this for some time. It is essential that we take action now through a combination of rationalisation and investment in areas of strength.
We cannot address our financial issues or achieve sustainability just by cutting and we must not under-fund activities simply because they are expensive; taking small cuts out of everything will not be effective in securing long-term financial stability or protecting and strengthening our areas of excellence. We must focus on supporting quality and we must invest more in the areas and initiatives that have the best chance of ensuring our future and long-term success.
Creating the University our staff have asked for
It is important that the aspirations of our staff are at the heart of any change, and the Strategic Conversation we held in 2015 is the foundation for this work. Indeed, many of the key themes in the institutional transformation programme reflect what staff told us. Our Strategic Plan makes clear that transforming ourselves into the more resilient, financially sustainable and agile institution imagined by our staff, as well as our students and external stakeholders, means tackling fundamental questions about our future shape, size and focus. The significant financial challenges we face in 2016 have sharpened the pace and scale of this transformation, but it is driven by the overarching objectives of the Plan.
Our transformation involves investment and growth in key areas of strength, including new research institutes, the development of an exciting and flexible portfolio of academic programmes, and the creation of new academic entities, including the University of Leicester School of Business, to foster cross-disciplinary collaboration in research and teaching. It involves initiatives to increase our ability to recruit and retain the best students; to improve the quality of our estate; to nourish, recognise and reward the performance, achievements and contributions of our staff; to internationalise our research, teaching and enterprise; and to encourage more successful local, national and global engagement.
In an increasingly competitive environment for higher education, our transformation also focuses on future resilience and sustainability, including the wise use of resources to fund long-term success. A year forward from the launch of the Strategic Plan, we can point to a good deal of progress in these key objectives.
A process of transformation also relies upon our willingness to question what we do now and consider alternatives. Institutional resilience and success rest in part upon an ability to develop new ideas and initiatives, but they also rest upon changing, reshaping and stopping activities – across all areas of academic research and teaching and corporate services – where significant transformation will generate better outcomes, where there is little prospect of genuine excellence or where there may be more effective ways of fulfilling our objectives. As we have made clear, those decisions will reflect past and present comparative performance, as well as present and future strategic importance.
You can see a summary of the vision, and a list of some of the current projects on the Transformation and Change staff webpages. These pages also include information on other large change initiatives such as Curriculum Change, the Student Lifecycle Programme and our approach to improving students’ educational experience.
Our approach to Transformation
For a number of years we have attempted to maintain a very broad research profile in a relatively small institution; at present, across the sector, size, scale and focus are increasingly the keys to success. So we need to focus on our research and teaching strengths which can lead to world-class research outcomes and impact.
We need an intelligent approach to student number growth, keeping a close eye on maintaining student educational experience while also targeting growth in ways that generate investment for research and teaching activities, as well as for our estate and facilities.
While this appears to focus on academic colleges, Professional Services have also been challenged to save 10% of pay and non-pay budgets and there have already been substantial savings through voluntary redundancies. We are undertaking a comprehensive comparative exercise to establish how our funding of corporate services sits in relation to similar universities across the sector and whether there are areas in which we can reduce or better target financial investment.
Overall, our approach and our processes must help us generate the financial ‘wiggle room’ to keep pace with the demands of a more and more competitive higher education environment. For a university without large endowments, it is not possible to stand still or pretend that the funding and regulatory changes of the last ten years can be ignored.
Our principles of change document sets out the approach we will take. These principles have been shared with and endorsed by the University Executive Board and the Senate, and our commitment to transformation reflects the very high expectations of our governing body, the Council.
Some degree of change will always be needed
We realise that uncertainty and instability are unsettling and stressful, especially for members of staff directly affected by changes in their departments. But universities are not immune to the sort of changes and challenges we see in other sectors and we do have to accept that change and a focus on performance are likely to become more rather than less important over time.
As best we can tell at the moment, the current government approach to funding higher education is unlikely to change significantly, and we need to be able to survive and thrive in this new environment, whether or not we want to celebrate it.
Much is happening that is very positive
We have to move towards being an institution that devotes time and attention to developing staff. We need to encourage a culture based on high levels of performance, reward and accountability.
The improvements in student satisfaction in key departments during 2015/16 is testament to the value of focused, collaborative work. The recent implementation of improvements in career structures, promotions, leadership and performance development reflect the value of consultation and the importance of staff taking the time to consider ideas, suggest alternatives and engage in debate.
We have already introduced leadership training for heads of departments; new approaches to promotion, with particular focus on helping women succeed through Athena Swan and the Aurora programme. We have also introduced the Discovering Excellence Staff Awards, which allow staff to publicly recognise the work of their peers. A new approach to staff support is being looked at, alongside some very real benefits to working at the University.
We are also committed to making the student educational experience the very best it can be. We are offering students far more choice in the way they study through the Pathways scheme. Our Student Lifecycle Programme aims to make student administration easier and less bureaucratic, and our Curriculum Change programme was introduced in response to student feedback around the structure of the academic year.
Work this summer on lecture capture, electronic registration, campus improvements, the Fabulous First Year and Students’ Union projects such as Peer Mentoring and the Residence Life programme all aim to give our students the best possible pastoral experience to match the outstanding learning experiences they receive across the institution.
Involving staff in the process
Working together, discussing issues and tackling problems continues to be a highly effective way to work. Our success – whether it is in league tables, the TEF, the REF, research funding, the NSS, the QAA or in less tangible forms, such as the enjoyment and benefit our students, colleagues and collaborators derive from working with us – relies upon the contributions of every single member of staff.
While the senior team are tasked with leading this transformation, we reflect consistently on the outcomes of consultations, including the Strategic Conversation, and we welcome continuing staff and student input. We have organised and will continue to organise events at which we can hear your views and benefit from different ideas and proposals.
There is a wealth of experience and a valuable diversity of perspectives in our university and we will always draw on them. It is important throughout this process to be as transparent as we are able to be. This is a hugely complex programme of change and there will be things we cannot share broadly because the people who are most affected by them must hear about them first. We are continuing to develop ways of engaging a greater range of staff in forward planning, as well as a series of ‘town hall meetings’ to share and hear views on key topics.
This is the right approach
This is a very complex process, comprised of numerous decisions and dilemmas. There are some hard choices to make. The easiest thing to do would be to leave everything as it is, hope for the best and ignore the aspirations of our Strategic Plan, but that is not a sensible or sustainable long-term choice. The academic and lay members of our governing body, the University Council, do not support this approach.
We have to adapt ourselves as best we can for the changed and changing world in which we find ourselves, while remaining true to our character as an academic institution. That’s not easy, because it can be difficult to reconcile agility and decisiveness with the debate and disagreement that will always accompany change in a university. We must manage in the situation that exists, while doing what we can to advocate for and create a better situation for the people who work in, need and benefit from higher education.
We are and should be proud to belong to the University of Leicester but like all our competitors we must strive to be even better. We must strive to be a leading British and international university that is strong, successful, and a great place to work.
For this we need all your support, as well as your imagination, and an understanding that we need to transform the way we do things and what we expect to achieve. Our entire university needs to match the performance of its strongest departments, research areas and academic communities, a performance that is built on collegiality and collaboration, a willingness to hold everyone to high standards and a commitment to supporting everyone to excel. Together we will succeed.
The University Leadership Team
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