(4-minute read)

In part two of a series of thought pieces, SUMS Principal Consultant Rhiannon Birch considers the academic portfolio review as an opportunity for change – to enable growth and portfolio success – but the cultural capital required should not be underestimated.


A new model for academic portfolio review – Part two

Part one of this thought piece presented a set of academic portfolio review case studies, which met with varying degrees of success and had several factors for failure in common. Academic portfolio reviews start with a senior academic lead being tasked with an exercise by the Executive, a request for data and an assumption that a lot of small programmes and complexity isn’t an optimal model of delivery. In this form, the supply-side exercise focusses on reduction and cutting provision, or is side-lined by discussions about how the portfolio is managed and the limitations of current systems creating barriers to improvement.

Update, transform and renew academic provision

While recognising that there are opportunities to improve inefficient processes and realise efficiencies, academic portfolio management also , creating space for new thinking about where the student offer and experience could be enriched, and where there are new topics which could be developed. The characteristics of successful academic portfolio reviews are simple things done well, including:

  • Clear leadership, scoping and an intended outcome, which has Executive support.
  • Distributed responsibility and accountability for taking the exercise forward and empowering staff to think about change and improvement.
  • Use of change management methodologies enabled by consistent messaging, ongoing communication, and dedicated support for the review as a change process.
  • Avoidance of prevaricating with data requests and indulgence in the belief that more data will inform a decision you don’t want to make.
  • A willingness to either deal with the workforce and human side to programmes or to allay concerns about the longer-term future and the intention of the exercise. If workforce considerations are not in scope, it should be a stated parameter at the start of the exercise.
  • Shared ownership and accountability for challenging responses and agreeing academically credible final outcomes.

A new approach to academic portfolio processes would be grounded in clear objectives and balance strong use of a rounded dataset including market insight, demand, and supply-side analysis, with effective governance. This would act as an ongoing enabler for the development and renewal of a programme portfolio, which aligns with the academic mission and financial context. It is an ongoing dialogue that is inclusive and requires strong and credible leadership to only develop provision which aligns with institutional strategy and student demand.

A 360-degree approach to portfolio review

Instead of academic portfolio review as an opportunity to prune provision, it presents an opportunity for co-creation and innovation. A 360-degree approach to portfolio review would begin with the University Strategy, financial and other key performance metrics, positional context, and insight into market opportunities. Early market testing with current students would iron out the differences between perceived student expectations and what students want from their programme which would enable new offers in response to emerging subject areas and demand. For example, embedding sustainability into curriculum, offering options on being human in the 21st century and preparing society for change. In this model, curriculum development is recast as one of co-creation with students providing insight into what led them to choose their provider and why they selected their route through their programme.

“In this model, curriculum development is recast as one of co-creation with students providing insight into what led them to choose their provider and why they selected their route through their programme.”

This could also present an opportunity to develop a differentiated academic portfolio structured different ‘product ranges’ each with their own branding, as one institution previously explored with a standard and value range. This could provide opportunities for testing new provision and seeing what works well with students.

However, the cultural capital required to challenge academic autonomy and move to a new approach cannot not be underestimated. With clear leadership and objectives to move to a new paradigm of academic portfolio development, the process could support academic development by reinforcing and reinvigorating the value of innovative and research or scholarship-led teaching, and support the development of smaller units of study as a test of demand before a full programme is developed.

For Professional Services staff, a more focussed, better governed portfolio is easier to administer which increases both efficiency and data quality. The annual cycle of business planning, budget setting and forecasting can be a barrier to thinking creatively about portfolio, especially where there are long leads times from programme development to the first cohort arriving. Building an expectation of agility and supporting this with responsive approval and governance routes would enable a responsive combination of student insight and academic rigour combined with marketing and recruitment expertise. Agility could mean culling unsuccessful provision and creating rapid routes to market for new course offers, while requiring market testing at the early ideas stage reduces development costs and increases income because there is proven interest in the programme.

Considering academic portfolio review as an opportunity for change which engages stakeholders and supports personal and organisational development suggest the potential of a different approach which learns from previous failures and recasts academic portfolio review as a positive means to enable growth and portfolio success.

SUMS offer

At SUMS Group we support institutions in scoping programmes and projects which deliver greater efficiency and organisational effectiveness. We bring experience of working with universities of all shapes, sizes and colours. Our expertise covers performance data analysis and insight; full economic costing; primary and secondary demand-side research, all of which can underpin successful academic portfolio review.

If you’d like to know more about SUMS Strategy, Planning and Transformation Service, or Marketing and Student Recruitment Service, more information is available on our website.

We’re happy to discuss any topics raised here and what they could mean for you in more detail. Contact Rhiannon Birch at r.birch@reading.ac.uk for more information.


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