University strategies, how are they created?

By Justin Shaw, Managing Director, Communications Management

Sitting at my desk just now, I’ve just been ‘googling’ what comes up when you search for “universities” and “strategies” (because that’s the kind of thing I am interested in!) – and I was amazed to see just how many of our universities are launching new long-term strategies this year.

Durham, Dundee, Aberystwyth, Greenwich, Surrey, Swansea, Liverpool John Moores, Sheffield Hallam, and Manchester Metropolitan – are among those universities working on their new ‘corporate’ strategies (or about to announce them).

In such a time of turbulence and structural change (post-Brexit impacts, HE Bill with TEF, demographic changes affecting undergraduate applications, demands for school involvement and delivering apprenticeships) it certainly is a period for deep reflection, analysis and for reviewing and refining trajectories.

In addition, our estimates are showing about a quarter of UK universities have appointed new vice-chancellors in the last 24 months (partly driven by pension changes) – and so there is an inevitable re-assessment of directions in order to bring a fresh injection of vigour and ambition.  Aberystwyth, Cumbria and Edinburgh are those that have recently announced new leaders.

Against this backdrop our company has been investigating the whole process of strategy formation in universities. Over the last few weeks we have been interviewing many different universities to identify how their strategies are put together, what they contain (and don’t), how people are engaged in the process, what form the outputs take and so on.

In summary: our work is showing very strong degrees of commonality – with most universities adopting similar approaches and formats. Most strategies are for five years (UCL’s strategy to 2034 –a 20-year timespan! – is one particular exception), are presented in “glossy” on screen and printed/printable formats (each lasting for 20 pages) and use words/phrases such as “transformation” “discovery” and “meeting global challenges”.

At a time when the Government is driving stronger choice and competition – the strategic directions of our universities don’t actually appear to be that different. As one vice-chancellor has said: “that’s because universities are universities” (their purposes are the same and they operate in the same way!).

Going in to more detail, our explorations of university strategies covered a wide range of issues, including: the leadership and management of the strategy process (who drives the development of the strategy), who (from within the university and from outside) are involved in having a voice on strategic themes and content (and how are people engaged in the process – which is something we at Communications Management are especially interested in based on our work in helping universities to engage effectively internally and externally), the process and timescales, the presentation and communications, and whether or not hardened performance measures form part of the strategy presentation.

Some of the headline findings in relation to each of these aspects of strategy formation are: 

  • The role of the vice-chancellor is essential – it is critical that the lead role is seen as a shaper and driver of the strategy (as with all organisations). But there are some concerns that vice-chancellors may be uncomfortable or somewhat anxious about this especially if they have never had to do this work before or are completely fresh to taking on the top job. Interview and assessment processes are increasingly exploring this part of the role when it comes to new appointments.
  • The ‘mood’ behind the process for strategy creation needs to be driven by complete openness and willingness to involve and show transparency. Unless this happens then the eventual output won’t be well-received and will be seen as imposed or as simply a token approach. As to who is engaged most in the process – these appear to be staff, students, employers, community leaders and partners (and, of course, the governors). Alumni and Government officials are also involved from time to time. Some university leaders also turn to peer (non competing) vice-chancellors to get a ‘sense check’.
  • The use of external partners to support the strategy development process appears to be changing. Those universities that we talked to said they were more likely to turn to an in-house strategy role or a single consultant whereas in the past there was a tendency to use the larger management consultancies for this support. Where external advisors tend to help most is with the review of the draft strategy (at a more developed or advanced stage) or they contribute by market data reviews and adding disruptive thinking to what could become an otherwise cautious approach.


The role of the vice-chancellor is essential – it is critical that the lead role is seen as a shaper and driver of the strategy


  • The strategy development process tends to take, on average, nine months from start to approval. This was felt to be too slow by some vice-chancellors that we talked to. Other industries ‘do it’ faster – but there’s a sense that actually the process of involvement and engagement is what matters most and with such a complex structure of stakeholders existing within universities, if it takes time to get all perspectives then this is time well spent.
  • In terms of strategy content – many cover off the inspirational context-setting (of who we are, what we stand for, how we are vying to be different and what our priorities will be) but can be short on detail (of how this will happen). However, in many cases, the main university ‘corporate’ strategy is seen as the hub for spin-off ‘spoke’ strategies that go into the finer details about function/professional areas and about subject-based academic groupings (faculties, schools, departments, units, etc.).
  • When it comes to setting Key Performance Measures – there is a feeling that there has been an increased need to set specific measures and milestones in recent years (in an increasingly measurement policy backdrop) whereas previously there was more reluctance to be openly providing targets that will be seen by outsiders and competitors. Our sense is that it’s about half and half: with 50% of universities specifying hardened KPIs. Many of these (that do) also have extensive lists of KPIs. Maybe a case of ‘what gets measured, gets done!’.   

Aside from exploring the process of strategy creation itself, as part of our review we have also taken the time to read as many university strategies as we can openly obtain. The design, format and presentation is increasingly becoming more colourful and accessible. Many strategies are now becoming video-based and dynamic in look and feel. However, this does tend to somewhat mask the content (which essentially feels the same as many others). There’s some interesting choices of themes and wordplay and some interesting examples to explore: the University of Reading’s ‘limitless’ concept is of particular interest (‘limitless ambition, limitless potential, limitless impact’). Sheffield Hallam is very much focused on ‘transforming lives’. The University of Salford emphasises an integrated approach through ‘Industrial Collaboration Zones’.

The need to be distinctive – while recognised as important and increasingly so when the new higher education agenda is even more fuelling choice and competition – is still the biggest challenge in all this. Words, phrases, themes and statements do not in themselves create distinctiveness. They can steer, shape and inspire. But, at the end of the day, it’s about ‘getting on with it’ and letting actions and achievements speak for themselves. There is a desire to be distinctive – but also a caution that dropping something or changing direction radically in order to be distinctive is not worth the risk.

As a further adjunct to our work we are now planning to explore the impact of university strategies in more depth. We want to understand the implementation of strategies and seek out great examples of where strategy is working and making a real difference. We’re inviting nominations for universities to explore this with – so please do get in touch and let us know.

Justin Shaw is Managing Director of Communications Management, a consultancy that support strategy, engagement and reputation needs for universities and for the partners that support HEIs. See: and for a copy of the report email:

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