In the words of Charles Darwin, it is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives: it is the one that is most adaptable to change.
How we all adapt will prove vital in determining the future of higher education and how our universities are seen, not just in the UK but on the international stage. Yet, to adapt, we need to consider the market influences which will shape change over the coming years.
As we look to 2020, we cannot avoid the current political climate. The ongoing uncertainty is already impacting on universities as with business and industry as a whole. By the time readers pick up this edition of UB, results may have been determined by the general election (12 December), but right now there are no clearly defined outcomes and no commonalities across the parties.
A decade ago, there was political middle ground. Today, we have political divergence with three mainstream parties that each hold different visions for the country with diametrically opposed positions on how to deal with Brexit. Historic alliances have also seemingly fractured, and we ask ourselves ‘Will the electorate choose to vote on their Brexit position, or will they vote on their political position?’
The two choices are not symbiotic, and we could see a very different political landscape emerging in 2020, making it virtually impossible at this moment in time for universities to prepare for, or anticipate, the future. It is not easy to adapt to what we don’t know. All we can do is adjust to what we do know.
CUBO members (who have commercial responsibility and play a vital role in driving campus services) are pivotal in navigating the challenges ahead, and I would argue a number of clear priorities are evolving where agility of thinking, and in how proposals are mobilised, will help universities adapt to the future. Institutes will be asking themselves:
- How do we provide the environment that supports all students and makes residence life easy for them? Any challenge should be in students’ education, not in how they access – or enjoy – campus services.
- How do we provide our services in the most sustainable way, responding to consumer voice across elements such as single-use plastics, veganism and energy conservation? Universities can be proud of their sustainability heritage but we can’t forget that the ‘Greta Effect’ is increasingly impacting on the students of tomorrow.
- How do we remain financially ‘fit for the future’? While some universities are embracing growth, there are those who are struggling for survival. The dichotomy between these is amplified by rising costs and changing student expectations around transparency, value for money and a desire to understand where funds are going. The cost of staffing has gone up with rising pension contributions and reduced benefits back to employees, yet more cost on universities, which will hit hard.
- How do we support wellbeing, mental health and gender diversity through design, facilities and services across both UK and international students? Demographic change is coming as the number of 18-year-olds will rise again in 2022 and where we are likely to see more first-generation students in the mix, bringing its own set of challenges across expectations, language and terminology.
- How do we manage our reputation, which is increasingly under scrutiny through social media, online forums, generalist press and government?
- How do we compete in a market that is increasingly global?
We have political divergence with three mainstream parties that each hold different visions for the country with diametrically opposed positions on how to deal with Brexit
To adapt means to constantly re-adjust to our environment
Small shifts in thinking can make massive alterations in end outcomes. And, ultimately, the price of doing the same old thing is far higher than the price of change.
The big decision for universities will be to decide if they want to adapt to COPE, or if they want to adapt to WIN. Doing what you’ve always done may feel safe, but is no longer an option.