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Why watching the Rugby World Cup will tell you more about university transformation than you might think

Like many, I’m counting down the days until the 2019 Rugby World Cup gets underway in Japan on 20th September. And, while waiting to see the likes of Owen Farrell and Jonny Sexton try to unlock defences, it occurred to me that we can learn a lot from the sport. In fact, the core roles in a rugby team offer an interesting lens through which to explore the factors underpinning a successful university transformation programme.

As competition grows in the higher education sector, universities across the UK are increasingly seeking to transform. Funding challenges, increased regulation and Brexit make improving service quality and minimising costs key ambitions for many institutions. However, university transformations are complex, and few universities have experience of delivering change of this scale. This poses the question: what are the key factors of a successful university transformation programme? Let's explore this by looking at the principles of a game of rugby.

In its simplest form, a rugby team comprises three key parts: the coaching team, the forwards and the backs. Despite the maxim 'forwards win you games, backs decide by how many,’ most fans would agree these three groups must operate harmoniously to deliver success. University transformations are no different. They require multiple components to come together in a cohesive way.

Just as success on a rugby pitch isn’t determined solely by what happens on the field of play, the success of a university transformation is as much about preparation, as delivery. In rugby, the coaching team dictates the strategy and style of play it believes will result in success. Whether it be the kicking game adopted in the 2019 Six Nations by Eddie Jones’ England or the focus on tenacious defence by Wales, there must be clarity in how success will be achieved before the game begins. In transformation programmes, top level leadership, sponsorship and direction offer this clarity and dictate the pace of change. The commitment of institutional management to delivering change provides the same confidence to colleagues as coaches give to their teams. This is integral to ensuring buy-in across the institution. 

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When the starting whistle blows, the first aim is to take possession of the ball. You can’t score points without it. This is predominantly the role of the forward pack to put in the ‘hard yards’ by tackling, winning the ball and gaining ground. In a transformation context these ‘hard yards’ equate to having a widely agreed, and universally understood, case for change, a programme vision and objectives, approach to governance and a clear and realistic plan for delivery. These are the underpinning components of a successful programme that must be in place prior to any change. As not having the ball denies the platform to attack, without these the university is without the platform to change and the transformation is destined to fail.

Once these elements of the programme have firmly secured the ball and prepared the institution for change it is over to the backline to start scoring the points (delivering it). Extensive communication and engagement, middle manager advocacy, an understanding of change capability and appreciation of the institutional culture and context will most effectively facilitate change. A failure to recognise the importance of these components will see the ball knocked on and a need to re-evaluate the initial strategy. Instead, prioritising them will enable the delivery of the transformation that may just futureproof the university.

While these principles will help any university transform there will undoubtedly be challenges along the way. As the most successful rugby teams in the world have to adapt to find their way to the try-line, universities must accept ambitious change programmes will experience unexpected events. The key is to be flexible but always keep the vision and objectives in sight.

It's the team with the best coaching, forwards and backs that will no doubt return from Japan with the world cup in hand. And it's the universities that best understand how to deliver successful transformation programmes that will truly revolutionise the experience of their students, staff and academics.

Contact the author

  • Oliver Peppiatt

    Oliver Peppiatt

    PA public sector expert

    Olly supports universities transform their operations to ensure they are meeting the needs of students, academics and staff

    Insights by Oliver Peppiatt

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