Forces shaping the HE sector

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5.2.2.f Forces shaping the HE sector - Distinct

Briefing Note 1Forces shapingthe HE sectorMeasurement systems and leaguetables based on a limited set ofattributes created a trend towardsuniformity in HEIs.Cuts in public funding, major changesin government policy and increasedcompetition for students andrevenues are now driving change.The operating environment willcontinue to evolve. As it does, theability to stand out from the crowdand engender loyalty will becomeincreasingly important toorganisational success.What this isThis briefing note outlines the pressuresaffecting the higher education (HE) sectorand looks at why identifying what ispositively distinctive about yourinstitution is key to organisationalsuccess.Why it's usefulIt provides pointers to more in-depthmaterials which explore how these forceswill shape the sector and the implicationsfor HEIs. Along with links to intelligencewhich can feed into your institutionsfuture scenario planning.How to use itUsing future scenario planning toanticipate threats and identifyopportunities will improve yourorganisations competitive positioning -keeping you one step ahead.Pressures towards uniformityIn the earlier half of the 20 th Century,central government was content to fundthe sector and leave the individualinstitutions to create their own distinctofferings and ways of doing things (theiridentities). However, as the sector grew insize, although the total amount of fundingincreased, the unit funding availabledeclined. The former led to increasedgovernment intervention, with a greaterrequirement for institutionalaccountability and central planning andcontrol. The latter led to a need toimprove efficiency and decrease costs.Institutions were generally forced torespond by conforming to themeasurement systems imposed andbecoming more similar. Even where it wasnot a matter of responding to reportingrequirements, those institutionsperceived to be successful were emulatedand the emergence of league tables in the1980s led to universities comparingthemselves not on those attributes whichenabled them to claim theirdistinctiveness but on the limited set ofattributes used in the league tables.Arguments for differentiationBut while there are clear imperatives forthe trend towards uniformity, there arealso cogent reasons for elaborating adistinctive strategy. On the one hand, inthe crowded marketplace which HE hasbecome, distinctiveness confers acompetitive advantage, enabling aninstitution to stand out from the crowdand be noticed by potential students andpartners.Created on: 23 March, 2011


Briefing Note 2On the other hand, a clear and cogentorganisational identity enables those whointeract with the organisation to identifywith it and become loyal to it. Loyalty isan important factor in organisationalsuccess, since it affects the cost ofattracting new students, reduces the costsassociated with student drop-out,provides opportunities for cross-sellingand enhances the potential forfundraising.But being distinctive isn’t just about beingdifferent. As proposed in our piece “Whatis Distinctiveness?”, a useful way to thinkabout being different is by first identifyinga current or desired category to whichone wishes to belong. There is security(for the members of the institution andfor those seeking to affiliate with it) inbeing part of a known category, ratherthan being one of a kind. And forsomeone looking for a university it wantsto do business with/apply to, having a setof distinct categories cuts down the workin identifying the one institution mostappropriate to one’s needs.Differentiated segments of the HE sectorFor the Leading Transformational Changeprogramme, the Plymouth/Teessideproject has proposed 4 categories of HEI:• Research priority• Learner priority• Business facing• SpecialistBut just as people can be categorised indifferent ways (age, race, size, belief,wealth, education etc), so can HEIs. Forexample, the American scholar RobertBirnbaum suggested HEIs could becategorised on the basis of programmeoffering, delivery methods, organisationalcharacteristics, diversity of theconstituency, reputation, and culture.the other institutions in that category.Being a member of the category will gopart way to attracting relevant students,staff, partners and investors. To ensurethat these stakeholders seek out yourinstitution, you need to be able to givethem a reason: what you do/offer/havethat makes you the ideal partner.Other resources1. ‘The university: a social technology forproducing universal knowledge’(Technology in Society 25 (2003) 217–234)is a thought-provoking paper by SteveFuller of the University of Warwick on thechanging role of the university.2. ‘Trends in Universities, Research andHigher Education‘ is a British Libraryinternal discussion paper as part of its2020 Vision Project. It proposes differentscenarios for the evolution of the HEsector. Accessed 23/03/2011:http://www.bl.uk/aboutus/stratpolprog/2020vision/trendsinuniresearch3.pdf3. In ‘New Labour and higher education:diversity or hierarchy?’ (Perspectives:Policy and Practice in Higher Education, 6(3) 73 – 79) Roger Brown suggests thatdiversity of provision needs to be plannedin at the regional or sub-regional level.4. The Plymouth/Teesside LeadingTransformational Change (LTC029) projectgave a presentation showing the mapthey had developed of the groupings inthe HE sector at the 2011 HEFCE/LFHEconference. Accessed 23/03/2011:http://www.lfhe.ac.uk/evt-crsprog/201011/lgm/lgm2011presentations.htmlFor an individual HEI, the task is toidentify a category with which it wishes tobe associated and then to identify what itis about itself that makes it different fromCreated on: 23 March, 2011


Briefing Note 35. PA Consulting’s report ‘Keeping ouruniversities special’ argues that‘universities will need to redesign and reassemblethe basic building blocks ofhigher education, re-asserting in differentways their role as agents of learning’.Accessed 23/03/2011:http://www.paconsulting.com/ourthinking/keeping-our-universities-specialsurviving-and-thriving-in-a-turbulentworld/‘A passing storm, or permanent climatechange?’ is a report on their survey of theviews of university vice-chancellors on theimpacts of emerging funding and policychanges for the sector, and theirexpectations and plans for their owninstitutions. Accessed 23/03/2011:http://www.paconsulting.com/ourthinking/pa-survey-reveals-vicechancellors-predictions-on-the-impact-offunding-cuts/6. Elsbach, K.D., Kramer, R.M. (1996)Members' Responses to OrganizationalIdentity Threats: Encountering andCountering the Business Week Rankings,Administrative Science Quarterly 41: 442-476 is a paper about the response ofAmerican HEIs to the introduction ofrankings.Find out morewww.distinct.ac.uk has a growingresource section.Get involvedIf you have a case study, report, orother resource you would like to sharewith colleagues in the sector we wouldlove to hear from you. Please contactus at:contact@distinct.ac.ukIf you would like to distribute thiscontent please contact the projectteam.© 2011 Distinct in Higher EducationCreated on: 23 March, 2011

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