Perhaps the best sporting headline of all time appeared in 2000. Inverness Caledonian Thistle had – remarkably – beaten Celtic 3-1. The Sun headline writer had a field day: SUPER CALEY GO BALLISTIC – CELTIC ARE ATROCIOUS. It is pure genius wordsmithing, which works on every level. It’s striking, it’s memorable, and, of course, it references a line we all recognise from our childhood viewings of Mary Poppins. I like a different scene in the movie. It’s the one where Julie Andrews, on her first evening with the Banks children, is in their nursery. Toys are scattered all over the floor. Julie Andrews – Mary Poppins – clicks her fingers (because ‘in every job that must be done/There is an element of fun’) and the toys find their own way back into their cupboards and boxes. It’s been a great disappointment to me in my career as a higher education leader that implementing strategic change isn’t as easy for me as it seemed to be for Mary Poppins: though admittedly she had the filmic genius of the Disney studios behind her. In the real world, without magical governesses, achieving strategic change demands hard work and careful planning.
The University’s new strategy Transforming Lives was published in February. In the last few weeks of the University’s academic year, I have been giving progress reports on implementation to staff meetings. Together with the rest of the University’s senior leadership team, I’ve been answering questions about the progress of the strategy, and the slides from those presentations will be logged on the University intranet on Friday, following the final staff meeting.
At the core of the University’s strategy are two very simple ideas: it’s about quality and distinctiveness. Higher education is a crowded place. Students, potential staff, research funders, governments and partners have vast choice. To thrive, a university has to be able to define its mission – its distinctiveness – and then to deliver that mission at the very highest levels of quality. If you don’t have outstanding quality, people can look elsewhere. But quality on its own doesn’t work – there are too many universities around now. You need to frame quality through a lens of distinctiveness: and, in a crowded higher education space, it is distinctiveness and not uniqueness. Very few universities can claim to be so distinctive that their offer is unique (indeed, most universities are trying very hard to be like someone else). The new strategy sets out to define the University’s distinctiveness and to raise the level of the University’s ambition.
We have made a good start. Many university strategies fail because there is no clear implementation framework; in March, we revamped the University’s governance structure around the new strategy, which forces us to engage with the strategy’s long-term aims and immediate priorities. It’s allowed a strong start to be made on implementation; that’s never without its bumps and scrapes in a big institution, but we have made good progress with implementation plans in place or in development across major priorities. The underpinning strategic pillar is the programme of work which has been called Building a Great University (already BAGU – this is a sector which loves its acronyms). The BAGU Board has begun work on reviewing the university’s Professional Services Operating Model, completing a current state assessment on how we deliver professional services and outlining an initial framework for a change programme. It has set in place ambitious equalities objectives and begun to outline work on revamping the framework we have for thinking about staff recruitment, retention and development – the ‘Hallam Deal’.
The Shaping Futures Board is overseeing our student experience, with a set of programmes agreed and delivery arrangements in place to help to ensure consistently outstanding student experience, focusing on closing the unacceptable gap in attainment between BME and white heritage students, on improving our employability offer, on further enhancing student retention and on systemically enhancing assessment and feedback – the weak spot on student experience for almost all universities. The Creating Knowledge Board has outlined a framework for prioritising research investment and has commissioned work which is intended to enhance our capacity to commercialise research and innovation, with a new Innovation Advisory Board established.
The strategy celebrates place and the University’s role in leading locally and engaging globally (inevitably, LLEG). I will pick out just two instances. We committed to a programme of work, provisionally called South Yorkshire Futures, to raise attainment and aspiration across the sub-region: this is a region where there is a six percentage point deficit in the likelihood of eighteen-year-olds going on to university. The Department for Education has seconded a senior civil servant, Greg Burke, to lead South Yorkshire Futures and is actively enthusiastic about the programme as an innovative example of a university engaging with schools and colleges. LLEG has set out three strands of work to provide coherence in our global engagement, as a part of which we want to see a serious step change – tripling – the proportion of our students who gain an international experience as part of their degree.
This is simply a selection of the work in place; the slides on the intranet will give you more detail, including some detail on the strategy co-ordination group which we have established to keep the programmes of work focused and on track. There is a lot going on and the implementation of the strategy will stretch everyone. It is intended to raise the ambition and performance of the University – the current priorities are simply the first phase. It means being bolder and more confident as a university. I said in staff briefings that the differences between universities around the world do not lie in their buildings, nor their staff, nor their students but in their confidence and their self-belief. I hope that as we move into the new academic year, every member of staff becomes enthused and engaged in driving the University forward. Before then: have a relaxing and rewarding summer, whatever your plans. You can get your summer off to a lively start at Hallam’s Family Fun Day on 28 July.