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The University Challenge: Responding to constant change by becoming an Adaptive University

Higher education has enjoyed many years of success in the UK. A steady flow of students, research grants and stable social positioning gave institutions room to grow and develop at their own pace. But in recent years, the sector has experienced seismic changes.

Competition amongst universities and with other forms of provision has become intense. And while the Augar Review has been parked, it seems inevitable that the Conservative government will need to revisit university funding and how it prioritises spending against vocational and technical education. 

This shifting landscape has meant many universities have restricted changes to urgent ‘big brand’ programmes with mixed impact. At the same time, the way people learn has changed and continues to evolve as a lifelong experience. The UK’s position as a top provider of education and research is under threat from not pre-empting or reacting to this change. 

Universities must adapt what they do and how they do it. But what structure will address present demands while offering enough flexibility to adapt to tomorrow’s needs? In our constantly-changing world, the goal posts keep moving. 

The key is to become an Adaptive University. An Adaptive University has the underlying structure and capabilities to pivot and change, but not at the expense of disrupting its core operations. It needs to be able to change its structure, shifting capabilities and matching new market needs, while maintain its academic mission.  

Creating an Adaptive University will take two things: a design that has inherent adaptability and an adaptive culture.  

1. Designing adaptability 

Designing adaptability means not looking for ‘the right answer’ when changing structures or ways of working, but instead ensuring that the design can adapt to a variety of unknowns that may emerge in the future.  

For example, we know there’ll be peaks in demand for a range of services throughout the academic year. Some are predictable, others are unexpected. So, rather than just designing for predicted demand, you should also design in adaptability. This could be through implementing scaling technology on a pay-per-use basis, encouraging pop-up services, experimenting with methods of engagement to even out demand or reducing overly-restrictive governance.  

Universities also need to build in responsiveness so they can evolve as new data emerges from the NSS, REF preparations or other sources. Over the next year, the government policy may shift significantly, and some parts of your institution needs to flex with that.  

Of course, some parts of a university benefit from being more adaptive, such as research support, student recruitment or IT. Others, like legal, need stable, secure processes. The focus needs to be to deliberately create greater agility in these functions that need responsiveness to the changing student and political landscape. There are different ways this can be achieved, from flexible and configurable IT systems through to a multi-skilled workforce with malleable processes. Embedded throughout is the need to create an adaptive culture within the university. 

2. Embedding an adaptive culture 

This principle starts from the top with an adaptive leadership mindset. As the institution adapts, it will need different skills across the workforce. Being comfortable with uncertainty is a big part of this, as is a willingness to experiment and make changes to how things work based on the evidence of testing. It should be the norm to respond rapidly to market demand and launch new courses in eight weeks, for example, not have to wait at least a year for approvals because that’s how it’s always been done. 

Key colleagues will need to embrace this, from influential academic staff to professional service leaders. There’s often received wisdom about why problems exist within university operations, but leadership need to be prepared to test theories and adapt the approach, technology and engagement if necessary. Using dark data, the information you already have but haven’t applied to certain problems, to test hypotheses can yield new findings that lead to fundamental changes.  

We know this isn’t easy for universities. There are many structures, governance systems and ways of working in place that have a significant history. And it will be hard to change thinking and beliefs, but by becoming an Adaptive University, you’ll create a much more resilient and effective institution.  

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