The risks of your institution not getting into shape for the reputational challenges ahead are significant, but the rewards for being well-prepared to run the race for opportunities are even greater. Here, Alex Favier discusses the importance of adopting a strategic approach to stakeholder engagement.

Is your university match-fit in its approach to influence and stakeholder engagement?

Question to your university’s Vice-Chancellor: can you name the top 10 priority organisations for your university? And if you asked your Executive Leadership Team to name their top 10, would there be any difference in their nominations?

Whilst this is a somewhat reductive question – it is intended to prompt a number of follow-up queries, including:

  • Have you articulated how your priority partners/ organisations should be approached in order to best deliver your strategic priorities? Are you clear what those strategic priorities are?
  • How are you coordinating your relationship management of different organisations/ types of organisations? Do you have the processes systems in place to help you do this?
  • How are you leveraging your influence-assets as third-party advocates – be they alumni, partners, or other friends of your institution? Who are they?
  • Where are the gaps/ duplication/ risks in your university’s approach?

As the Higher Education sector staggered towards the Christmas break after what felt like a six-month long fever-dream in UK Politics, it must have still been wondering exactly what its reputation is with a Government that takes an increasingly bipolar approach to university policy. One week the budget reaffirms our status as innovation engines driving growth in local economies and putting ‘Global Britain’ on the map as a ‘Science Superpower’; the next we are the cause of record post-pandemic immigration figures, described most recently by Cabinet Minister as a ‘back door’ for the dependents of students to move to the UK. As with universities in the US, Australia and Canada – we are also sat at the crux of the Culture Wars increasingly afflicting the Western World.

So, whilst all of this is very concerning, beyond looking worried at the next UUK board meeting, what exactly can universities do as individual institutions to navigate this febrile, fractured and fragmented landscape? Is it just an avalanche of challenges and an ever-increasing rosy glow to an institution’s risk register – or are there opportunities to be grasped from amidst the rocks?

The answer is, of course, a resounding “yes” to the existence of these opportunities. Following the rise of the civic agenda, universities are much better placed to more effectively articulate the role they can play in driving local growth. With the rise of the intentional rather than incidental place-based strategy, universities should be able to harness the power of local political and industry advocates to make the case for the research and innovation-driven economic impact model that (as research has shown) is much more likely to ensure more sustainable, impactful growth.

But while this sounds feasible in principle, the devil – invariably – lies in the detail. Aligning the required third-party advocacy to make the case for an institution’s local/regional significance and contribution requires more than just the now-tired; “we’ve done an economic impact assessment, here’s the big number now please stop complaining about students kicking bins over” approach. Universities are increasingly needing to run a reputational marathon and a series of partnership sprints… and are not necessarily ‘match-fit’ in terms of their capacity.

This first requires a university to know and decide what exactly it wants to do and what is the priority – not an easy task in institutions that sometimes more resemble a coalition of occasional mutual interest as opposed to a hierarchical organisation. It then needs to coordinate the engagement and articulation of any particular initiative to a wide array of local stakeholders – be they local political leaders, MPs or businesses and then somehow harness their advocacy to an aligned campaign aimed at convincing a dizzying array of Ministers, SpAds, and Whitehall officials to invest in a particular thing.

Pulling all of this together into a strategic approach is difficult in universities that, by and large, are not built to be top-down hierarchical organisations. The solution is almost never to spend loads of money on an expensive CRM system that no-one will bother using, or to hire a political affairs agency without knowing exactly what you want them to do. Instead, universities should first look to their own individual culture of relationship management – and in particular, the preferences of the Chief Public Affairs Officer (aka the Vice-Chancellor) and what is expected of their Executive Leadership Team in terms of organisational stewardship. They should then look to the resources available to them across their institutions – and what structures and strategies exist to unite capabilities often spread across multiple departments (from research and business development, fundraising and alumni relations, careers, external relations and public affairs teams).

This is no simple undertaking. The risks of your institution not getting into shape for the reputational challenges ahead are significant, but the rewards for being well-prepared to run the race for opportunities are even greater.

For support and advice on your university’s strategic approach to stakeholder engagement, SUMS Consulting has partnered with Favier Ltd to offer a new service helping institutions develop their partnership management capabilities, including institutional influence audits, capability assessments and campaign design.

Other News