More options: greater complexity

The traditional approach to strategy rests on making predictions about the future and then providing a clear plan to accompany that

By Gloria Moss

In an era of higher student fees, certainties about student choices in the HE and FE sectors are removed and the ability to manage complexity becomes a key strength.

Professor Ruth Farwell, Vice Chancellor and Chief Executive of Buckinghamshire New University, is well-placed to comment on the complexities facing the sector.
“We don’t know what will happen sector-wide in 2014-15, nor what the ups and downs will be,” she comments.

“Increases in fees have added complex layers to students’ decision-making, with choices regarding university study jostling with options to gain employment. There will always be those who regard HE as the next step but there are others who want to keep their options open.

This creates a complex landscape for universities and colleges. Prof Farwell paints a picture of a sector in which the total numbers across HE in England will not have dramatically changed in 2014-15 compared with last year and in which, according to UCAS data, applications are a third more likely from women in the UK than from men. However, Prof Farwell says there could be ‘all sorts of ups and downs and differences between institutions, which subjects are popular and whether more young men will come into the system.’

The question of discipline popularity – the extent to which certain disciplines are in vogue or not – will affect the fortunes of many institutions, even though the popularity of certain courses will be affected by factors beyond the influence of many HE institutions. There is a case then for regional or national involvement in setting the stage for discipline choice and linking this to plans for economic growth and job creation. On this basis, the profile needs to be raised of areas with good employment opportunities such as engineering and science, something that needs to be addressed at national and regional level. Farwell sits on the Buckinghamshire Thames Valley Local Economic Partnership (LEP) board and says such partnering can be very fruitful.

Beyond recruitment, a key issue for institutions relates to student retention. According to research, a sense of belonging is a major factor in willingness to engage long-term with academic study and this is where the size of the institution or the sub-area with which the students relate, is so important.

‘At Buckinghamshire New University we’re not so small that we can’t forge links with major employers but not so large that students can disappear. As a result, there is a real sense of belonging and the University becomes aware if there is an issue with student engagement and can follow up,’ says Farwell.

The student journey can also be eased through financial measures and Bucks New University has launched the ‘Big Deal on Course’, a financial package worth up to £1,000 to each new undergraduate student over their three-year period of study. Depending on the course, the package can include essential textbooks or vouchers; equipment and materials; photocopying credits and a contribution to the cost of field trips and free gown hire at graduation.

“Giving students a big send-off at graduation in September, and celebrating their success with their family, is a key part of our ethos,” adds Prof Farwell, “and this is echoed by a warm welcome to new and returning students a few weeks following that.” As she says: “We welcome these new students into our family, fostering a pride in the university very early on.”

That family, it should be said, will have a distinct profile at every University. At Bucks New University a higher than average proportion of students (60%) are more than 21 years of age on entry, allowing them time to extend horizons between school and university. Older students often bring greater instrumentality and career-focus to their choice of course and this can explain the attractions of the predominantly applied syllabus offered at Bucks New University. So, students can obtain degrees in film, criminology, accountancy, business, advertising, design, sports, music and event management, as well as nursing, computing and law. Younger students coming direct from school can be attracted to an applied course by earlier experiences gained in these areas.

So, there may be uncertainties in the sector but understanding the student body is absolutely essential. As Prof Farwell says: “Listening is all-important and engaging staff and students will be key survival mechanisms in the years to come.”

Gloria Moss is Professor of Management and Marketing at Buckinghamshire New University. She has a new book ‘Why men like straight lines and women like polka dots’ coming out at the end of November.

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