Press release

A quiet revolution: post-pandemic UK university system is refocusing itself around local social and economic needs over league tables and national policies

09 December 2021

PA Consulting launches results of its 11th survey of higher education leaders

Vice-chancellors (VCs) are driving radical change in the higher education sector by focusing their universities’ future identity and income streams on their local community’s social and economic needs, according to latest research by PA Consulting (PA), the consultancy that’s bringing ingenuity to life. In contrast to historical priorities, 60% of VCs rated the recruitment of under-represented and/or local student groups as their first or second strategic priority and 45% prioritised support for local levelling-up projects. Only 13% prioritised recruiting the academically most able students.

PA’s survey reveals a sea-change in the outlook of universities, becoming less focused on national policies and instead centred around local needs.

Key findings include:

  • Levelling-up projects are becoming a strategic driver. There is greater institutional commitment towards issues such as sustainability and social mobility. Focus on place-based engagement and participation in local levelling-up projects is becoming a strategic driver: 60% of VCs placed recruitment from local and under-represented student groups as their first or second strategic priority, with 45% similarly prioritising engagement with local economic and business developments. Fewer than 10% make ‘leading in advanced and international research developments’ their top priority  
  • More flexible learning opportunities and pathways for young people. Universities are also taking the initiative in opening more flexible learning opportunities and pathways for young people and adults: 35% already have strategic partnership arrangements with FE colleges and local employment programmes, with another 28% planning similar measures
  • Innovative services and delivery partnerships. Vice-chancellors are offsetting the prospect of reduced tuition fees by planning revenue growth built upon innovative services and delivery partnerships: 33% are looking for more than 25% growth from online sources, over half are looking for up to 25% growth in private educational services and private R&D services
  • A new cohort of leaders is emerging. In the context of a sector looking to expand its business streams, a striking feature of this year’s survey is the number of new VCs in post and of others about to retire; we estimate that as many as one-third of universities have or soon will have new VCs in the two years since our previous survey.

Ian Matthias, head of higher education at PA Consulting, says: “A picture is emerging of vice-chancellors and institutions differentiating their missions and strategies to be more relevant and responsive to changing social and economic needs.

“Vice-chancellors are building on the unexpected capacity for rapid innovation, adaptability and agency that universities discovered through COVID-19. This will secure their futures, better deliver for students and further strengthen the links between universities and the people they serve.”

Mike Boxall, higher education expert at PA Consulting, says: “The movement towards direct engagement with local and regional economic and social ecosystems opens the prospect of a very different higher education sector. This will be more relevant, more open and more valuable to fast-changing societal needs. It brings with it new challenges, but we are seeing vice-chancellors taking the bold decisions needed to ensure their university can make a sustainable living in what will be a radically changed sector.”  

Download a copy of ‘A Differentiated Future: PA’s 2021 Survey of Heads of UK Higher Education Institutions’ here

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