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Back to basics as vice-chancellors predict a polarised future for UK universities

Vice-chancellors (VCs) are unanimous in predicting a difficult outlook for UK universities as they face up to political and economic uncertainty, according to latest research by PA Consulting (PA), the global innovation and transformation consultancy. VCs expect a period of radical restructuring underpinned by ‘back to basics’ business strategies. Up to 60 per cent expect a wave of rationalisation through cut-backs, partial closures, mergers and takeovers.

PA’s 10 surveys have tracked a dramatic turnaround in the nature and focus of university strategies. PA’s reports show a progressive erosion in the relationship between universities and ministers, with all VCs regretting the decline. PA’s survey finds that higher education leaders thought reduced fee funding and a return to student number controls were the biggest threat to them. Fears about Brexit, the Augar review, implementation of the ONS review of loan funding and political uncertainties create a uniquely challenging future.

PA’s report also finds that many institutions will look to academic and business partnerships to share the costs and risks of adapting to changed market conditions. Online provision and services for industry will be priorities for many, although many VCs are concerned that their institutions lack the skills and capabilities that this entails.

Paul Woodgates, who leads higher education consulting services at PA Consulting, says: “Universities have sought to become more innovative, enterprising and efficient. However, there is much more they can do. There are worrying shortcomings in some areas that are becoming critical for universities’ competitiveness and resilience, such as commercial and change management as well as digital skills and services. Institutions need to help their staff to see that change is inevitable and that by embracing it they can be a part of creating a sustainable future.

“Institutions will survive and thrive in years to come if they are able to see new opportunities and discern market movements, move swiftly to exploit them ahead of others, focus on value, and keep costs under control.”

Mike Boxall, higher education expert at PA Consulting, says: “Beyond sustaining their volumes of teaching and research, universities must adapt – as have other sectors – to the threats and opportunities of a competitive, digital, technology-powered world. While some are investing in this transition, our survey shows that many others (up to half) are lagging behind in innovation and modernisation across their operations, especially in their take up of new technologies. 

“This is perhaps the real challenge for the leadership of British universities over the coming years, as the transition from sheltered public institutions to self-reliant providers of learning and knowledge services continues to evolve.”

The full findings of the report can be found here:

Our tenth survey of heads of UK higher education institutions.

Find out more

Contact the education team


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