New Year, New Perspective for Universities

Here’s an uncomfortable question to start the new year – how relevant are you?

In a world where knowledge is found on-line, geographical barriers are surpassed by social media, companies are actively asking employees whether their jobs can be done by robots, why would anyone want to incur on average £32k of debt and spend 3 years in a building on a campus acquiring something that surely can be done more quickly and cheaply elsewhere?

Exploiting these changes in the retail market are what put Amazon on the map and they look set to continue their influence on the way we buy just about anything. Right now there are jobs advertised at Prime Air, Amazon’s test drone delivery service, aiming to deliver parcels to customers within 30 minutes or less – anywhere in the world. Courses to train as a drone pilot are advertised for £990 and average starting salaries in the US are $50-60,000. Not bad.

So in this context, where new entrants to higher education may come from unexpected competitors, how does a university stay relevant? Are there lessons that can be learned from successful, customer-focussed businesses that will help universities thrive into the future?

Here are three ideas that we believe apply to higher education.

1. Shared purpose

Since Jim Collins Good to Great research nearly twenty years ago, businesses have known that a compelling purpose and vision of the future is key to high performance. Amazon’s vision is “to be earth’s most customer-centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.” and by all accounts they’re making good progress. But mass on-line retailing feels a long way from the nature of higher education. Can this idea of shared purpose really be applied to universities?

Joshua Forstenzer, Vice Chancellor’s Fellow for the Public Benefit of Higher Education at the University of Sheffield debates this very point. In this article Joshua refers to the House of Lords declaration that the purpose of UK universities is to make a contribution to society through the pursuit, dissemination, and application of knowledge and expertise and that they must be free to act as critics of government and the conscience of society.

The introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), increased financial pressure and market uncertainties such as Brexit and digitilisation, bring doubt and debate to the enduring purpose of universities. Is it still relevant and possible for universities to focus on academic advancement alone or are the outcomes of employability and career progression now more important? The answer may differ from one institution to another – either way, aligning academic and professional services employees to a clear, shared purpose seems an invaluable first step in a university’s survival.

2. Get Personal

Last year’s research by Universities UK showed that students want a relationship with their university based on trust and confidence, one that will support them to get the most from their studies and deliver on the promises made. This is different from the kind of customer relationships they may have had to date, but not so dissimilar from the ones they may have in future when buying a mortgage, investing for their family’s future and planning for retirement.

At face value comparing a university with financial services may seem unhelpful. However, they too need to attract people who will be ‘successful’ with them; they need to build trust-based, long-term relationships that fully take account of the personal goals and motivations of each individual. Building societies in particular have a higher purpose than simply providing services to people – they have a social conscience and seek to improve society. To genuinely deliver on their purpose, organisations such as Nationwide and TSB prioritise stepping into the shoes of their customers, understanding their challenges, their context, their choices, so they can anticipate what they need next and fully support them in achieving their goals.

TSB broke many of the traditional rules of banking to fulfil their purpose of making banking easier and to personalise this experience. They removed advisor scripts, developed listening skills and empathy skills, removed sales targets and made all employees partners in the bank. Most business contact centres measure their abandonment rate – the number of customers who give up before even speaking to anyone. What’s the equivalent abandonment rate for a university and is it worth understanding?

Parent and peer opinion is known to influence student choice of university – if Professors are your greatest asset, how are they actively engaging with prospective students in the early stages of decision-making? Can universities benefit from knowing their students more intimately even before they choose you? We think so.

With intimate knowledge of their customers, successful businesses build their organisation from the outside-in, everyone is aligned, like the vertebrae in a spine, to doing what’s right for the customer.

In practice this means everyone understanding their purpose in relation to the student. It means teams understanding their role in the value-system of a university and practicing attitudes and behaviours that deliver this value efficiently and effectively to students, employers and other stakeholders. It means stripping out unnecessary bureaucratic processes and making the experience of choosing, joining and studying at the university a simple and engaging one.

With fewer than 35% of students saying their course was good value for money there must be room for a fresh perspective on how to improve this perception.

3. Foster humility

The Universities UK research also showed that students increasingly want to be co-producers of their higher education experience. This requires high levels of collaboration across university employees and students and a willingness to do things in new and different ways.

Universities are particularly siloed places and culturally still hold onto the trappings of status and intellectual debate. To devalue academic achievement is not the answer, but these unwritten rules need to be surfaced and understood if they are not to hinder the kind of cultural evolution necessary to fully engage students in future.

Organisations such as the telecommunications disruptor giffgaff have a business model built on humility, willing to give almost total power to their customers. They keep costs low with no customer service centre, instead putting members in touch with each other to welcome, support and comment on giffgaff’s service. The community is actively encouraged to put forward ideas for new products and services and to take part in their development.

So can universities benefit from taking a business perspective to remaining relevant?

The short answer, in our view is ‘yes’. Of course, a university is different from a purely commercial business. They have a purpose that includes the progression of knowledge and advancement of society and this surpasses the regular market forces of a shop, a bank, a phone-company. But they also have a duty to enable students to succeed and the reality is that students having buying power unlike ever before – like it or not.

So, for universities wishing to remain relevant – to attract students, retain them and help them to be successful, each of these three ideas feels like a perspective worth considering.

Pecan Partnership are people performance experts who work across a wide range of sectors including business and higher education. We improve productivity performance and engagement through culture change. Contact us if you would like to find out more about how we can help you develop a student-focused culture.

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