Some ‘don’ts’ of University Strategic Transformation/Establishment

In this series, so far, I have written about the ‘why’s and dos’ but what about don’ts?

This will be my concluding article.

Strategic choices in a university transformation or set up can have grave future ramifications and it’s important to know the ‘red lines’ before we embark on the journey.

So here goes. What NOT to do!

Delay putting leadership/advisory team until infrastructure is ready – it is tempting to have an approach where you hire junior personnel or contractual expert consultants to later. It is partly because the institution may want to control pre-transformation costs or sometimes they see early involvement and hiring of leadership as wasted ‘bench time’. This is fallacious. You want the leadership and advisory team to be willing partner with full voice and buy-in from the start.

In short – do it as early as possible, that is, get the leadership in place.

‘Outsource curriculum development’ – If the transformation involves academic program overhaul then make sure that the academic team knows about their role in the transformation and understand their role and responsibility in making the transformation a success. After all, academic program is the ‘product’.

How about ‘borrowing this expertise’? Nothing wrong with borrowing the best from university partners but the market and institutional adaptations are a must and a responsibility of the academic team. This is a core expertise that faculty and deans must build on their own.

Rely completely on foreign academics – This is controversial especially in a market like UAE that has expat talent for virtually every sector of the economy.

I believe a phased approach is necessary – to borrow a terminology (and crude analogy) from the infrastructure sector – a BOOT i.e. build, own, operate, transfer approach is recommended. The expertise must be transferred to local ‘resident’ faculty over a carefully calibrated time horizon. Academics who have a long term view on their residency create value through ever improving teaching and learning and also market relevant research. As I have learnt over the years – stability and tenure create intellectual value in education.

Be overambitious in student acquisition goals or even scale up timelines – Educational institutions take time to attain maturity. But when they do it is sustainable over decades. For new (or newer) universities first couple of years of missed enrollment targets should not send panic alarms in the system.

It’s OK! You are establishing your brand, spreading awareness, enrolling a test cohort of students in your institution – no matter how small – refining your academic delivery and student experience amongst other things.

Do not start firing your (capable) staff or cutting down your budgets just because your overambitious excel worksheet targets developed by analysts don’t happen. This will set you back even further.

Education, especially higher education, is a long-term venture. What a quarter is in the corporate world is a year in education.

Even if you are a well-known foreign university branch campus DO NOT assume that students will come flocking to you just because of your home country reputation. It simply takes time and more importantly patience. For the students university choice is life altering – they are prone to choosing a university because it is familiar and has been around for longer.

Not tapping local expertise (especially for branch campuses) – I have seen time and again (and I will not name these institutions as I have advised them in their market entry and incorporation) that the home country marketing team treats the offshore branch campus as a ‘cookie-cutter’ onshore branch/study center.

The approach is to run marketing campaigns, enrollment efforts from their home country with little adaptation, targeting and strategy.

Tap local expertise to ensure success. This has long-term payback and in fact much more cost efficient. If you count the resource cost, travel and time away from core job role of the home country resources vs. competent, committed and capable local partners to help with non-academic services it’s a no brainer.

Do not make it an ego issue of ‘not invented here’.

Invest heavy capital upfront and ignoring the financing needs and cash flow projections of the institution over later years – This is from personal experience: Private investors get excited about building an educational venture for ‘self-actualization’ reasons and see it as an investment in the social sector, contributing to the educational priorities – all good and noble reasons mind you.

Things go wrong when the venture is assessed by corporate finance teams at the investors’ family offices. They calculate NPV, IRR, cash flows and treat it as another business investment in their portfolio.

Quite simply – the story has been told incorrectly.

A higher education venture, whether new or transforming, has to have a commitment of meeting the funding needs over a 10-year period. When it becomes sustainable – hopefully before 10 years – investors can reap the benefits. But higher education cannot be a ‘one time’ funding and then have a begging bowl every year.

A short-term/one time approach can have grave strategic implications – e.g. institutional talent has a ‘short-term view’ as they are uncertain about the ongoing financial support. Planning is short term – a hurry to build revenues with inadequate focus on fixing the basics i.e. academic program, quality, student experience, graduate success and partnerships.

Please – education is a ‘patient capital’ business but reaps modest and very low risk returns once the venture is established or transformed. If this is not palatable to the investors then you don’t need to have any ambitions to be in this sector. Period.

Fill the board with ‘decorative’ or ‘political’ individuals – It is tempting to fill the board with friends and family and benefactors and celebrities and socialites…well everyone but individuals with sector knowledge, governance expertise, a mindset foe compliance, accountability and quality and relationships that can help with partnerships and open doors for the venture.

Do value expertise, wisdom and gravitas over individual salience.

That’s all for now.

Education leaders: If you want me as your sounding board – happy to lend a ear.

Dr Ajay Shukla

I am the Owner of this educational search portal to facilitate the students to pick up the desired programs.

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