University strategies

Ten years ago, when I was a Faculty Dean there, the University of Hull adopted what it called a ‘Corporate Plan’. This was not the university’s first strategic plan strictly speaking. Like all universities in the UK, it was obliged by funding council rules to produce regular strategic documents, but in reality these documents were not strategic plans: they were drafted by someone working in the university’s administration and nodded through by one or two committees; their rather lengthy content essentially set out what the university was doing and what it was already committed to doing under a variety of headings. Nobody in the wider university community was really aware of these successive plans, and certainly no strategic or resourcing discussions were informed by them.

Ten years ago, there was a slight change of procedure in Hull: a working group was established to consider whatever draft plan might emerge, and I was made a member as the representative of the Faculty Deans. A draft plan duly emerged and we had a meeting to discuss it. The draft was very long, and was divided into several sections, each dealing with the key elements of university business: teaching, research, physical infrastructure, and so forth. The discussion, as I recall, was not animated and mainly focused on fairly minor adjustments to the text. When I was invited to comment, I suggested that the whole approach was wrong: strategy was not about trying to describe existing plans and commitments, it was about creating a vision and setting out a framework for prioritisation and action. A plan should use language that was accessible to a wider audience but that would also energise and motivate the university community, and it should be much shorter. The result of these discussions was that, on this occasion, the University of Hull adopted a plan that was quite different from the previous norm.

What I was able to learn from this process influenced my approach to planning in Dublin City University after I became President in 2000. My major hope was that we would have strategic documents that would avoid too much detail and would look to the future in terms that would allow the university to prioritise its decisions on resource allocation, and also tell a story to external partners and stakeholders that would persuade them to back us. While this was still a learning experience – and in particular it was a while before we had a fully effective implementation programme – I believe that the last two DCU strategic plans have had a major impact on how planning is seen in the Irish university sector.

The problem with university strategies is that they have to address the balance between the need for an overall organisational purpose and direction on the one hand, and the need to respect academic autonomy on the other. This is a very difficult balance to get right, but unless it is got right the whole planning concept cannot work. But in all sorts of vital contexts, including the need to be successful in bids for competitive funding, the ability to demonstrate that the university as a whole has a coherent strategic direction and that it will be able to reflect that in prioritising the allocation of its resources (including the ability to withdraw resources where appropriate) is a condition for success.

At one of the very first meetings of Irish university Presidents that I ever attended I suggested that we should all issue a joint statement on an issue then (and now) of vital interest to the university sector. One of the other Presidents declared that he would not be able to declare, on behalf of his university, what its policy was on this issue (or actually on any issue), because there would be no consensus in his university that it should have any overall university-wide policy on anything. Strategy was a matter solely for the departments. We have come some way since then, and I doubt that any of the Presidents would say that now. But there is still a not yet fully developed shared understanding of what a strategy should look like in a university or across the sector.

DCU will be adopting a new strategic plan towards the end of 2008 to follow the last strategy, Leadership through Foresight. The new strategic plan is likely to be short, to contain a small number of key objectives with metrics that will guide implementation, and will address both university and national needs and trends. One of my hopes is that we will receive help from the wider public in the planning process, and I shall certainly be interested in a wide range of views and suggestions as this unfolds. My email address is president@dcu.ie.

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