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Board Sketch #3: Strategy Day

05 Jul 2022

Welcome to the latest of our Board Sketches, aimed at giving you more insight into each of the Board of Governors meetings to help engage our University community with the Board and its work

John Owens exterior

The Board of Governors, with the Senior Leadership Team (SLT) attending, take the opportunity, once a year, for an extended Strategy Day to reflect on the threats and opportunities affecting the University strategic plan Our Future, which was launched in early 2020. 

The Chair highlighted the focus of this year’s extended meeting was on resource prioritisation in a period of uncertainty, incorporating presentations and discussions on people, research, teaching and learning and net zero plans, as well as financial priorities.  

It was a day of constructive challenge and debate, reviewing the wider factors now shaping the five-year plan.  

Wider factors now shaping the five-year plan 

To kick off, the CEO of Universities UK, Alistair Jarvis presented a forward-looking sector-wide viewpoint which closely echoed the University’s thinking and analysis.  

The Board and SLT reflected on the many major global issues impacting the University such as significant inflationary pressures, the war in Ukraine, post-Covid recovery, skills shortages and supply chain issues, pensions and managing employee relations.  

The current political environment and government policy priorities clearly continue to affect us as do higher education reform and regulatory change. There are many other underlying factors which we have to take into account: changing student and staff expectations, digital innovation and disruption, levelling up, and potential shifts, both demand and competition, in the international student market.  

Beyond the effects of that external context, SLT is constantly seeking to assess and predict the University’s current and future financial position against a range of significant strategic dilemmas facing research-intensive universities. Find out more in our video, as President and Vice-Chancellor Nancy Rothwell provides a more detailed look at a broader range of dilemmas we regularly consider, whether strategic or operational.  

Implications for the University’s priorities and our strategic plan 

In discussion, the Board recognised that there was little prospect of a change in the funding settlement under the current government. The earlier foresight programme and the Strategy Day debate continued to support the view that there was no need for change in strategic direction. The meeting discussed that for some staff there was acute change fatigue whilst for others there was some frustration about the slow pace of change.  

As always, the importance of leadership in guiding change was stressed both for staff and in terms of students, how prioritisation and investment would improve the student experience. The Board discussed the importance of exploring new ways of working and covered the need to stabilise the IT infrastructure to ensure future developments are built on solid foundations. Of course, financial realities impacted on all these issues.   

A more specific focus  

Focusing on more specific presentations, Adèle MacKinlay, the Director of People and Organisational Development presented on the emerging People and Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) strategies. While the Board will look at both strategies in detail at the July meeting, the Board were very interested in exploring more about culture and behaviour and the importance of training and development in behavioural change.  

The session on Research, led by the Vice-President for Research, Colette Fagan focused on the opportunity to grow research, post REF 2021. Board questions revolved around the balance between supporting innovation and new knowledge discovery, the sub-optimal funding model, importance of interdisciplinary research and the excellence of the overall research environment that is provided.  

April McMahon, the Vice President for Teaching, Learning and Students presented on our teaching and student experience: initiatives, ambitions and opportunities. In a lively debate, Board members praised and supported the innovative approach which built on the best elements of the Covid response. This focused on the connected issues of integrating and providing an optimal mix of on-campus and digital resources and activities; and optimising the student experience. The developing Flexible Learning Programme would provide a distinctive Manchester approach (flexible, rather than digital first) whilst the focus on student outcomes was around success, progression and feeling a sense of belonging to the University. To underpin these positive developments, the Board recognised the need to improve our understanding of student lives and expectations.  

The Vice-President for Social Responsibility, Nalin Thakkar presented on Decarbonising the University. The board committed to essential funded elements of the decarbonisation plan including energy efficiency projects and an innovative Power Purchase Agreement. While there is a gap to the realisation of the 2038 targets, the University has the benefit of a costed and evaluated roadmap (which many institutions do not have) with the Board supporting the overall direction of travel in relation to decarbonisation.   

Smart prioritisation of resource   

While the financial position is strong for this year, with a positive surplus, the medium-term financial outlook is challenging given capped tuition fees, increased inflation, under-funded research, so the Board recognised that the need for smart prioritisation of resource is ever more relevant.   

Luke Georgiou, Deputy President and Deputy Vice-Chancellor, and Patrick Hackett, the Registrar, Secretary and Chief Operating Officer presented on investment priorities. The main sources of investment demand are general growth in core activities; improving staff and student experience, maintaining and repurposing our estate (including decarbonisation and new build); upgrading IT infrastructure  

Aligned to Our Future, prioritisation decisions are driven by the need to ensure regulatory compliance; stabilisation of service; financial and non-financial benefits; the extent (if any) of external funding; and any necessary sequencing. 

Approximately £1.7 billion of priority spend is funded in our strategic plan over the next ten years. It is important to remember that this is not everything that is being spent. It is the major thematic areas of importance in addition to pay costs, and business as usual expenditure on suppliers and services. This represents an important shift to systems and support from our last investment plan, and is a higher proportion of identified, priority spend than had been the case with previous plans.   

Briefly summarising the outcomes of the day 

Overall, the Board discussion resolved that in an uncertain world, very much the new normal, the University remains well positioned, with key strengths clearly evident.  

In line with the views of the Senior Leadership Team, the Board agreed that the objectives and ambitions in the current strategic plan remained relevant and, whilst there was likely to be need for flexibility and agility, there was no requirement for a fundamental shift in the direction of the strategy.  

The Board felt the mix and shape of the investment portfolio and the criteria for prioritisation, and the risk within the portfolio, was broadly appropriate. It was also clear that prioritisation would need to be an ongoing process.  

While not all future plans are currently funded, a greater proportion are funded than at the comparable stage of development of earlier plans. In addition, although no assumptions of funding had been included thus far, the potential is evident for a University philanthropic campaign to support and further develop core strengths and Manchester’s unique place in the sector.