By Zac Ashkanasy
Across the globe, universities are considering how to plan for a post-pandemic future. A key question for university chief operating officers (COOs) is what the traditional brick-and-mortar campus environment should look like if hybrid teaching becomes the norm.
If students are hesitant to go back to packed lectures in large theatres and staff are unwilling to commute five days a week, how best should universities use their campuses? And how can operational leaders continue to support faculty and students as they research, teach and learn in new ways?
To help COOs answer these and other important questions, Nous Group recently surveyed more than 70 leaders in operations at universities in Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand and the UK. We’ve distilled from our findings the priorities we think will characterise what progressive university COOs do next.
Managing the rise of the digital estate
The pandemic resulted in financial shocks, staff restructuring and a switch to virtual learning. On top of this, students and staff sought wellbeing support en masse. While this presented university COOs with immense challenges, it also meant they were given the opportunity to rapidly transform operations and find new ways to partner with – and even lead – their executive peers.
Take the move to virtual learning. The higher education community has long discussed the need for universities to move more instruction online. But the pandemic radically accelerated the shift as institutions worked intensively to build the digital infrastructures needed to support student and academic life in lockdown.
Our research shows that 59 percent of university COOs ramped up digital investment and implemented virtual technologies to help their faculty and professional services work from anywhere. They also worked to give students the power to choose how and when to access online instruction. Further, many universities embraced more automated processes, such as converting paper application forms, travel expenses, accounts receivables and more to digital systems.
As managing this digital shift rose up leaders’ agenda, on-campus maintenance and services became less of a priority. Nearly half (45 percent) of the COOs we surveyed said they reduced spending on campus investment during the pandemic.
Restoring universities to financial health
Yet bricks-and-mortar campuses seem unlikely to become a thing of the past.
Studies show that most students still want the opportunity to be physically located within an academic community. While this doesn’t preclude online educational delivery, it does involve more of a traditional teaching approach, with plenty of face-to-face interaction. It also means supporting all the other aspects of campus life that involve direct contact, such as cultural, sport and social events.
As a result, 78 percent of the university COOs we surveyed reported that the drive to improve the on-campus experience for students remains central to their institutional strategy. Again, this represents a tremendous opportunity for COOs to make major changes and embed them for the future.
Getting this right is vital given the financial situation most universities find themselves in post-pandemic. Many face income shortfalls because of reduced international student numbers over the past two years, along with lower revenue from shuttered student accommodation and conference centres.
While 78 percent of COOs see a return to financial sustainability within three years, they plan to use different levers for financial recovery. In the UK, Canada and Ireland, most (61 percent) intend to rely on expanding international student intake. In Australia and New Zealand there is a greater focus on improving the efficiency of support services (54 percent) and removing low-margin courses (46 percent).
Improving the on-campus experience
All of this means COOs must come up with new master plans for the campus experience that cater to changes in student and staff preferences after COVID-19.
This includes considering ways to make online instruction as supportive and flexible as possible, ensuring that underrepresented, vulnerable and disadvantaged learners are not left behind. It also involves thinking carefully about how offering flexible options for staff can improve their working experience and help to attract and retain talent.
COOs should particularly consider how to improve the face-to-face campus experience. What is the role of large auditoriums and seminar rooms, and the spaces equipped with the technology for blended learning? How can universities best unlock value from underutilised spaces?
One idea we like is to create on-campus research precincts, where students and staff can connect with industry to undertake collaborative learning and development opportunities.
For example, the Waite Research Precinct at the University of Adelaide has the largest concentration of agriculture, food, wine, nutrition and natural resources sciences expertise in the southern hemisphere. The precinct houses 1,100 researchers and technical staff, along with 845 research and agricultural students and significant infrastructure.
Boosting service effectiveness
At the same time, the move to digitally enabled service models outside campus has triggered demand for a more service-oriented university culture. This requires COOs to provide a superior experience to students, academics and professional staff alike, rather than simply ensuring that everybody obeys regulations and rules.
For students, the introduction of or increase in fees contributes to their perception of themselves as customers, making them particularly sensitive to service quality. COOs – often responsible for institutional processes such as marketing and student services – are acutely aware of the impact poor student experience can have on the university. In fact, in our survey, 77 percent said improving service effectiveness was their top priority.
As a result, many university COOs are pursuing large-scale transformation initiatives to replace outdated digital systems with new ones based on next-generation technologies. This is helping to create digitally connected ‘smart campuses’ that can improve facility management and lower operational costs, while enhancing staff and student experiences.
Such initiatives take time to implement, so some leaders are reaping more immediate returns from cosmetic changes. Examples include getting the right composition of food and retail on campus, creating more opportunities for community use of campus facilities, and investing in green spaces. As these COOs report, relatively small changes can help to create a ‘sticky’ campus where existing students spend more time and prospective ones are encouraged to visit.
Delivering a new value equation for higher education
This is an exciting time to be in higher education. While the post-pandemic situation remains challenging, operational leaders have a valuable opportunity to rethink their strategies and reconsider their own roles.
First, they must step up as institutional change leaders. COOs’ leadership and strategic communication enabled university staff to rapidly transform during the pandemic. Now COOs must build on that capacity, supporting their institution’s workforce as it continues to adapt to new technologies and new ways of working. This will be key to achieving their core goal of service effectiveness.
The second step is to rise to the digital challenge. The pandemic necessitated rapid digital change, but now leaders must use the momentum gained to push through further efficiency and quality gains. This will enable COOs to unlock service effectiveness while also delivering the benefits of a physical campus.
Finally, investing in data analytics will be essential for COOs to champion change and enhance the speed and confidence of their strategic decision making. Establishing good data governance and clear data ownership, while ensuring data is shared appropriately across the institution will be vital. You can learn more about this theme in this podcast from my colleagues.
By prioritising these three factors, COOs can better position their institutions to thrive in a post-COVID-19 world.
Download a copy of Building the Plane Plan While Flying it: the Challenges of a Contemporary University COO.
This article expands on an article first published in The Australian on 3 June 2022.
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