The iPhone. The 2007 economic crash. Leicester City winning the Premiership. Did you see them coming? Predicting the future is always likely to catch you out. As someone once said, nothing dates faster than the future.
So it’s a bit bold to suggest that we should base our new strategy on our aims for the University in 2030. A lot can happen – and will. But it does make sense for a university to think long term; not because we can predict the future any better than anyone else, but because our obligations – to our students, our city, the development of knowledge – are long-term. And by thinking hard about the long term, we are able to look beyond the short-term problems and crises which – inevitably – distract attention.
It’s for this reason that I’ve challenged the University to think long term and to think about its future on a grander scale. I’ve said on several occasions that this is a university deeply embedded in its city and region – it traces its origins to the Sheffield School of Design, established in 1843, Sheffield’s first institution of higher education. This is Sheffield’s university. The challenge for us as we journey toward the middle of the twenty-first century is to re-fashion Sheffield Hallam in ways which are true to its roots and drive us toward the future.
I said soon after I arrived that this is a good university, with a huge amount to be proud of. I want to help it become a great university – not by being things which it is not, but by being great in its own terms – true to its origins and development; the UK’s leading applied university. What I mean by that is that it should unashamedly be a university which provides usable answers to complex real-world problems. That means thinking about, and doing, heavy lifting on the pressing challenges we face as a society looking toward the middle of the century; not withdrawn from engagement with the community around us, but fully engaged in it.
This is a long-term vision. It is not built around things we will be able to achieve overnight and trying to do so would be confusing, as well as costly – creating multiple priorities and demands. Because the vision is a long-term one, our plans for the next five years will need to set out the initial steps that will take us towards it. Those plans need to do two things: to ensure we have a solid base from which to build at the same time as allowing us to invest in, explore and test opportunities that will help move us closer to our vision.
There are many areas of Sheffield Hallam that are already excelling at what they do and we do not want them to lose momentum. There is some strikingly innovative work and we do not want to stifle innovation. However, there are also areas of under-performance that need to be urgently improved and some activities we need to cease in order to develop new work. Moreover, at a time of rapid change, we cannot take already good performance for granted: our competitors are also looking to improve and in a competitive market, performance is always relative.
Work is now well underway in what I’ve called the ‘strategy refresh’, looking in detail at the University’s current performance, at where we want to be in 2030, and how we will get from here to there. So far the work, has focused on the first of these questions, considering our strengths and weaknesses and how we compare with others in the sector.
There is a broad consensus that we need to be clearer about the University we aspire to be. Clear priorities need to be set in a way that allows staff across the University to make decisions in their everyday work. Crucially, this also requires us to be clear about what we don’t do, or attach less importance to. This is not just about what we do, or even how well we do it, but also about the values that we hold as an institution. There is also widespread agreement that we need to improve the quality of what we do in order to offer our students the very best. Too often, quality is not consistent across the University – with progression from the University to employment being just one, obvious, case in point.
Our relationship with the Sheffield City Region is critical to us. We sit at the heart of the city, which, like the University, is asking tough questions about its future. Sheffield’s strengths and its identity can be our strengths, be it the tradition of making, a strong sense of social justice and inclusivity, or the growing reputation as an ‘outdoor city’. Our aspirations to global engagement depend on defining our regional role.
For all this, there have been a number of discussions which identify our internal culture and processes as the greatest potential barrier we face. It’s been said that change is too slow; there is too much bureaucracy; that it can be hard to make changes; that innovation is not something we are geared to do well. These challenges need to be addressed through the strategy itself and the implementation plans which will follow.
Finally, at a time of rapid change in the organisation, accountability and regulation of higher education, we have to be willing and ready to work in ways which meet others’ needs. We need to understand better how others want to work with us and respond through the technology we use, methods of delivery, decision-making and communication.
Any process of strategy development is iterative – raising ideas, examining them, and revisiting them. If the process is going to be challenging, then inevitably some things will be floated which look worrying or difficult. There is now a strategy refresh microsite which takes you through some of the analyses which have been used to initiate discussions and explore issues – but they are prompts and not proposals. You can find a range of materials analysing the University’s current position, performance and prospects.
Over the next few weeks, we will be using the analysis and wider discussions to firm up proposals for the strategy refresh – and for moving the University towards becoming the great university it can be.