5 ways to build resilience in Higher Education

The Higher Education (HE) sector in the UK is under considerable pressure, with a real danger that some may go out of business in the next few years. Turning threats into opportunities now will make them more resilient. Here’s how. 

In 1976, Steve Sasson patented the world’s first digital camera. It weighed 3kg, contained 16 NICAD batteries and held 30 images at low resolution. It would take another two plus decades for the technology to catch on, with Kodak as the wet film photography market leader holding more than 95% of the market. 

Fast forward to 2000 when FujiFilm, Kodak’s chief rival, diversified to digital. Kodak did not. In 2012, Kodak would file for bankruptcy. 

The lesson? 

Steve Sasson was a Kodak employee when he patented the thing that would ultimately lead to its demise. Had Kodak seen the opportunity and the threat of digital, there might have been another ending. 

What can Higher Education learn from Kodak? 

The Higher Education (HE) sector in the UK is under considerable pressure. There is a real danger that some educational institutions may go out of business in the next few years.   

Coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, finances are even tighter, the number of international students is no longer guaranteed, and the traditional models of student recruitment and retention as well as teaching priorities and methods are no longer completely valid.   

Students today are less interested in the traditional three- to four-year degree and its considerable debt, and are drawn increasingly to a model of part-time and lifelong learning. Staff are also suffering from poor morale and wellbeing caused by issues such as pension rights and zero hours’ contracts. 

However, much like the Kodak scenario, this situation presents opportunities as well as threats. The quicker the HE sector turns these threats into opportunities, the more resilient they will become in future. 

Here’s how. 

Five ways HE can become more resilient                                                    

1.       Manage financial risk. Finance Departments are a critical aspect of HE Business Continuity.  In the post-COVID world,  government funding is uncertain and revenue from both UK and international students is falling, so the HE sector should be proactively managing its financial risk and looking at alternative revenue streams such as valuation of its real estate, small-scale income generation schemes or partnerships with the private sector.       

2.       Re-assess the international student business model. The HE sector needs to ensure that it is relevant in a world that is suffering considerable geopolitical shocks and should be gathering the right data to enhance both student recruitment and retention.  
 3.       Re-vamp teaching methods. The pandemic has demonstrated a complete change in teaching methodology with some staff being more in tune with technological changes than others, and a student cohort that lives online.   

4.       Review funding. The Augur Review has noted that some courses are overfunded because they produce higher financial margins for an academic institution whereas underfunded courses such as Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM), medicine and health have higher overheads but produce some of the highest earnings for graduates.   

5.       Become cyber-secure. The one area in HE resilience which is solely a threat is cybersecurity. There have been almost 500 critical cyber-attacks in education in the last 12 months, and the sector is considered to be the weakest area of the economy in relation to cyber defence policy.  Therefore, all HE institutions must work extremely hard to establish and maintain a robust cyber defence posture, something which can only be underpinned by consistent high quality cyber training for all academic and support staff as well as students.  The cyber threat will never be eradicated but these measures will reduce the risk of catastrophic failure.   

Staying “Match-Fit” in Higher Education 

In recognising the current risks in HE and learning lessons from how individual HE institutions handled the COVID-19 pandemic, the sector has the opportunity to enhance its resilience in the short to medium term.   

This should be done using the traditional planning processes of a Crisis Management Plan (CMP) which is focused on the People, Reputation, Outputs and Property pillars of the organisation, and then strengthened by a Business Continuity Plan (BCP) or Emergency Response Plan (ERP). 

All plans should be updated to reflect the current risks and then enhanced by consolidated training using all three of the Gold, Silver and Bronze levels of command. This training must include a lessons process from which learning can be made and the BCP/ERP further updated.   

BCPs and ERPs traditionally include scenarios or playbooks to assist actions on events such as fire, flood, building structural failure or civil unrest. Given the need for greater HE resilience, the number of scenarios or playbooks should be increased to include cyber-attacks, IT failure, pandemic, protest action (involving academic staff, support staff and/or students, outside influences such as Extinction Rebellion), terrorism, death or serious injury, and wellbeing. 

Communications is the key element in all these scenarios to stay “match-fit” as it underpins the whole strategy of the HE institution.  There must be a comprehensive and well-practiced strategy for both external and internal communications and the effective use of social media is critical for messaging at speed.  

Actions: On 

A series of “actions on” scenarios will help each HE institution to deal with an urgent event or crisis.  However, there is a strong argument for all institutions to do longer term planning to enhance their resilience.   

As a starting point, each HE institution should conduct a command level review of its plans for finance, academic courses, UK and international student numbers, academic and support staff employment and real estate.  This work would certainly assist in getting through the near-term shocks caused by recent events such as COVID as well as establishing a baseline for resilience in the medium to long term. 


About the authors

Inverroy Crisis Management consultants Mark Pugh-Cook and Liz Telford are specialists in HE Business Resilience and Crisis Management. They recently delivered these insights at the Higher Education Business Continuity Network (HEBCoN) Conference in Liverpool. 

Mark Pugh-Cook  

Mark is a fluent French speaker and operationally qualified senior manager widely experienced in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance programmes, human resources and training management roles. Highly experienced in leading large, multi-national organisations in complex environments, Mark has a proven record of achieving successful outcomes through analysis, focus and incisive decision making. Mark’s qualifications include: BA (Comb Hons); French interpreter; CMI Level 8 Certificate in Strategic Direction and Leadership; Practitioner Certificate in Risk Management; Practitioner Certificate in Agile Project Management; and he is a Certified Member of the Business Continuity Institute (CBCI). 

Liz Telford  

Liz is an experienced Learning Coach with a demonstrated history of working in the e-learning industry and experienced Health and Safety Practitioner. Skilled in Training Delivery, Health and Safety Management, First Aid, and Oil & Gas. Liz’s qualifications include: BA Chemistry;  
Level 6 certificate in Occupational health and safety (NCRQ); Mental Health First Aid; and National General Certificate – Level 3 National General Certificate – Level 3 (NEBOSH). 

For help with your Crisis Management, Business Continuity and Emergency Response Planning, please get in touch with us at enquiries@inverroy.com. 

Image credit: D.s.kalinin

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