From crisis management to business recovery, universities’ responses to Covid-19 are presenting opportunities to transform the sector.


SUMS Consulting has been talking to university leaders about managing the Covid-19 crisis and their visions for the future. With views gathered from a series of one-to-one interviews, SUMS’ Community of Practice Groups meeting virtually, along with student surveys, SUMS is able to take a service-by-service review of university operations. It has found a sector eager to change and seeing positives in adversity.


To introduce the findings, Joel Arber, SUMS’ Managing Consultant takes an overview of the sector response to the crisis – and its implications for the future.

As the calendar clicked round into September at the start of the academic year 2019/20, it already promised to be a challenging one for many universities. An increasing number had posted financial deficits in 2018/19. This year represented the demographic nadir of 18 year-olds in the UK. Efforts were focussed on student recruitment, in an ever more competitive market. The reality of Brexit and its myriad consequences for the HE sector loomed large. Uncertainty continued following the publication of the Augar Review and a new regulator was beginning to flex its muscles in a way that felt both unfamiliar and uncomfortable.

SUMS Consulting’s work across the sector at the start of this academic year largely reflected the challenges universities were facing, with many asking us to help design target operating models for professional services, or create efficiency programmes to reduce operating costs while driving up performance. It was rare for us to speak to universities who thought all was ‘well with the world’.

Fast-forward to January. Covid-19 crept silently, malignantly, destructively across the globe. As global businesses, universities had to take action in order to mitigate the impending crisis. Rather than absorbing Covid-19 as another kick to a sector that was already down, the sector responded positively. SUMS has found that universities’ responses have seen the sector at its best.

As we draw to the end of the second semester, working in enforced lockdown, we can reflect on the way our universities have risen to the challenge.  Some are already moving from crisis management to business recovery and are identifying ways in which the changes they have made in adversity can be sustainable – changing higher education forever, and for the better.

Read the full paper teaser: Silver Linings Playbook – Opportunities to Transform the Sector.

Joel Arber joined the SUMS Group in 2019 from the University of Central Lancashire, where he was Pro Vice Chancellor. A branding, marketing and communications expert, he has more than a decade of senior leadership experience in higher education.

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