Evolving operational leadership in higher education
Unis that focus on creating seamless modern-day operations will give the modern student environments to thrive in, says Berwick Partners' Gin Bhandal
The demands of university students are changing, driven by new learning technologies, increasingly blurred lines between subjects, a shift away from lifelong careers, and, after fee hikes, a sharp focus on value for money. No longer do undergraduates just have eyes on the final qualification, they are more focused on accessing and monitoring progress, maintaining wellbeing and gaining a rich and seamless experience beyond the books throughout their higher education (HE) lifecycle.
This means operational leadership in HE is under ever-increasing demand to meet students’ needs in order to attract and retain them. When paired with relaxed rules on university intake numbers, all this seems to be leading the sector to think of students as consumers, and universities as commercial machines.
However, the sector must not forget that the responsibility to deliver top graduates also lies with the learners, and the relationship between an institution and its students is still very much two-way. Universities that focus on creating seamless modern-day operations, complimenting teaching and embracing technology, will give the modern student an environment to thrive in.
Universities should therefore be looking to recruit for the changing nature of operational leadership, before making an attractive case for those with the skills to deliver.
“Large-scale, complex operations are awash with opportunities for talent to disrupt, create and grow – and they must shout about this from the rooftops to gain cut-through and turn the heads of talent inside and outside HE.”
In practice, most operational aspects of a university now interface with students, from open days to graduation. New teaching and administration technologies such as virtual learning and online student portals mean this closer contact is only set to increase.
This creates the need for operational leaders, such as an academic registrar, to evolve from stewards of processes and regulation to people who steer student services by understanding and responding to analytics, replicating successes and tackling performance issues using technology. Solution-orientated individuals who can improve processes with the student experience and the full operational function in-mind are carving a new niche.
Universities are complex organisations, often with entrenched senses of identity, thinking and delivery. Modern operational leaders looking to adapt the workings of their institutions need to be strong influencers who can create non-hierarchical environments and break down barriers to change. Outside HE, this talent can commonly be found in multifaceted organisations such as central government and the NHS, where individuals are managing their own teams while influencing and collaborating with other departments to drive change and results. The private sector is also an increasing pool of talent for HE.
The operational functions in HE are becoming both more strategic and hands on – giving them the chance to make a big difference to large-scale work streams at their universities. To seize this opportunity, programme and project management skills are increasingly important. For example, a long-term student recruitment strategy involving three programmes – marketing, application and registration – needs a leader who can achieve and measure the programmes’ milestones simultaneously, while aligning with the strategic project aims. Sectors such as banking and utilities – where customers are funnelled across departments – can be good sources for talent with these skills.
“Solution-orientated individuals who can improve processes with the student experience and the full operational function in-mind are carving a new niche.”
Making an attractive case
In today’s evolving and increasingly competitive higher education market, it is essential for universities to attract dynamic operational leadership, both to support students and achieve commercial goals.
Historically, the reputation of the sector as ‘graduate churning’, stuffy research organisations presented recruitment challenges for operational talent, competing against sectors like professional services and technology. Yet, the nature of HE has changed, and the operational function is more vibrant and influential than ever.
Now, these large-scale, complex operations are awash with opportunities for talent to disrupt, create and grow – and they must shout about this from the rooftops to gain cut-through and turn the heads of talent inside and outside HE.
Making an attractive case comes down to employer brand. Whether that’s a focus on showcasing unique values, innovation or results of an institution – a proactive and progressive approach to understanding, before communicating the desirable aspects of a university will attract the best people.
Gin Bhandal is an operational leadership appointment specialist and principal consultant in the higher education practice at Berwick Partners.