Focusing on the future

There is a lot going on at the moment. Externally, we have political turmoil as the government and politicians continue grappling with Brexit and all that this brings in terms of challenges for our country and society. In addition, our own sector, higher education, is facing unprecedented financial, regulatory and political challenges. These external challenges in turn affect each and every one of our UK universities in many and varied ways and none of us are immune from the following:

  • increasing competition for students – home and international
  • changing demographic – a falling number of students age 18-21
  • a home-regulated fee which is worth much less now than it was in 2012 (£9,000 in 2012 is now worth about £7,900)
  • rising costs across all our activities
  • increased compliance, regulation and monitoring
  • negative publicity and media attention.

Our situation

For our University, we have seen that the increasingly competitive recruitment environment has impacted us in a negative way. In the summer of 2018, we saw changes in applicant behaviours – later decision-making on firm offers and fewer students coming to us via insurance and clearing than in previous years. Overall, this means we now have fewer students than planned and a significant negative impact on our finances – we have a financial deficit of almost £6m this year which also flows through into the next few years meaning we have significant savings to find as noted in the October 2018 Leadership Bulletin.

In addition, this year – 2019 – we have experienced a significant reduction in applications to the University overall and when we project forward we see a further impact on student numbers and a negative impact on our finances. This doubles our deficit from 2018 and increases the need for further savings to that already reported. We are now, very much, in the squeezed middle – between our Russell Group competitors who are accepting our insurance applicants and working in clearing more than ever, and the expanding ‘post 92’ universities. We are also in a financial scenario that cannot continue, consisting of rising costs and flattening/declining income and a deficit budget – these are stark realities that have unfolded relatively quickly and we are no longer sustainable as we are.

So what must we do?

We have to face these issues, build on our strengths and take control of what is happening to us. We need to plan and manage a reduction and consolidation in our size, and manage and deliver a change in our shape as we contract in some areas of our work, expand in others and develop new areas.

We need to be ahead of the curve in this difficult environment. We have already put in place a number of measures to reduce our expenditure and are also looking at ways to increase our income. These actions include:

  • all schools and professional service departments were tasked to develop savings/realistic market-led growth plans during autumn 2018 to deliver 15% budget improvements – we need to enact these from 2019/2020
  • launching a voluntary severance scheme (from April 2019)
  • deferring some planned capital projects to provide financial headroom
  • consolidate and re-define our portfolio of modules and programmes – school plans are starting to identify where this is possible in terms of stopping areas that are not viable, areas that can grow and new programmes
  • launch new activity delivered in new ways; for example, the Kent and Medway Medical School and the Institute for Creative and Cultural Industries
  • invest in and enable a ‘step change’ in our marketing and recruitment activity
  • work on getting greater clarity on our mission – what kind of university are we, do we aspire to be and can be, what is rooted in our values and heritage and what is distinctive? This also helps with marketing ourselves to prospective applicants
  • diversify our modes of delivery – respond to demand, accelerate online and blended learning, Higher Degree Apprenticeships and international pathways
  • enhance University performance in education and research – for example, academic workforce projects, address our relative student:staff Ratios (school plans), identify and launch signature research themes
  • organise ourselves for resilience and success
  • simplify and streamline our key processes.

Organising ourselves for resilience and success

We cannot afford to carry on as we are. We now have an unsustainable model of 25 schools and academic centres, a faculty layer of administration and many separate professional service departments, and we are drifting away from our peer group in terms of our academic performance as a whole. We need to address this and ensure that our structures support our need to become a stronger, more cost-effective university, enabling us to deliver our strategic ambitions in education, student experience and research. In addition, we need to address the feedback from our staff and students which includes the following:

  • a need to improve our performance as a University, with better alignment of decision-making, accountability and resources
  • a desire to improve communication and engagement
  • bureaucracy and layers slows decisions and creates poor communications
  • an inconsistent student experience across multiple schools and centres and services
  • a strong ‘school identity’ is seen as key for student and staff recruitment and creating a sense of community
  • a need for clear and streamlined work flows, digitisation of processes and single trusted data sources
  • a greater sense of being ‘academically led’ within our core mission
  • a need to be more agile and responsive, be bold and take some risks.

Taking all of the above into account, (feedback, the need for savings and long-term sustainability), we are proposing a devolved model of organisation that focuses on our academic schools being at the heart of our University.

The proposal involves bringing current schools together into larger strategic groupings to share both resources and administrative support teams. This will create an agile and resilient model so that we can respond quickly and effectively to a rapidly changing environment.

It is proposed that there will be between six and ten of these larger groupings and that the faculty layer will be removed. It is anticipated that the new structure will be in place by the end of 2020. As part of these proposals, we will:

  • retain school identity by not breaking up schools as they currently exist but bringing together areas that could lead to creative and new areas of education, research and innovation
  • devolve resources and decision-making to these school groups so that decision-making aligns with resources and accountability, providing greater autonomy and agility.
  • devolve key professional service functions into school groups so that school groups are properly resourced to deliver on their ambitions and plans
  • create strong links directly between school groups and Executive Group helping to shape strategy and policy
  • group a number of professional services at the centre to support strategic aims, allowing them to share resources and teams.

We now need engagement with staff across the University and our students to ‘reality test’ assumptions and details, revise the plan as appropriate and help plan for implementation. This is the work that my Executive Group colleagues, David Nightingale and Denise Everitt, are now leading. We have called the project ‘Organising for success’ and there is now a website with information for staff that we will keep updating throughout the process. Information for current and prospective students, alumni and others will follow.

In summary…..

Recognising the scale of the problem and the pace of change and disruption in the sector, the impact on us and the fact this is not going away is the first part of our response. However, we also need to act urgently to address the challenges we face, as well as act in the long-term interests of the University. The combined actions, set out above, are designed to build on our strengths – a high-quality education, diverse intake of students, significant and award-winning value added and employability outcomes, and a strong and distinctive interdisciplinary approach to research and knowledge generation and dissemination. Our planned actions will also enhance our profile and reputation, grow student numbers from a broader base of applicants and attract more postgraduate and international students, and work with a cost base that is properly aligned to our income.

We are in challenging times and we need to respond positively and do things differently if we are really to address the issues that face us right now. I know this creates uncertainty but I also know colleagues want to see action alongside ambition. By working together we will build a stronger university, and I will work with you to achieve the changes we know we need and bring the success our staff and our students deserve.

Professor Karen Cox, Vice-Chancellor and President