· Features

Universities and management schools need to start thinking more like businesses

Higher education institutions are not known for their robust business models, but that needs to change. Universities and management schools need to start thinking more like businesses and learning from leading private sector organisations.

Higher education has traditionally been seen as a supply-led industry, but it needs to move to a more demand-led approach. Institutions must put the needs of not only students but also prospective employers at the heart of their offers and business models.

They have a central role to play in driving economic growth by supporting the development of skills in key industries. We need to view fee-paying students as customers, and respond flexibly in how we develop them to meet market needs.

That's why at GSM London we have learnt from marketing. We apply disciplines around customer insight to understand our student cohorts and their particular needs. This means we can improve the service we offer to improve student satisfaction and progression.

We use detailed feedback mechanisms and student body segmentation to better understand our students and their differing needs - just like a big retailer would with its customers. Students are smart consumers and key stakeholders, and higher education organisations need to treat them as such.

My role as CEO, working alongside our provost, is to set the strategic course of our institution - based on good customer and market insight - enable the teams to deliver and celebrate success.

My background is unusual for higher education: I've held senior roles in service-oriented businesses including Mitchells & Butlers and PepsiCo. But this has taught me how to use customer insight to drive improvement. I have shaped businesses to respond flexibly to market needs and provide products and services that meet customer demand. Why should our educational institutions be any different?

The recent report from the Association of Business Schools, The role of UK business schools in driving innovation and growth in the domestic economy, outlines the impact UK business schools have had in supporting the development of British businesses, and gives recommendations for the future strategies.

High on the agenda is the need for business schools to make themselves more visible, accessible and relevant to industry. Students need to get real-world business experience, something we encourage and facilitate. They need help translating their 'knowing' into 'doing'. This will transform them into professionals armed with the skills and behaviours organisations need.

To enable this campaign to be successful, business schools need the support of businesses that are willing to welcome students on placements and internships. Not only will the individual student benefit, but the company will gain insight from the generation, which is the workforce of the future.

Engaging with employers is also key for all education providers - whatever their specialism - as it influences programme development. The oil and gas sector is of growing importance globally and is challenged by a rapidly ageing workforce, so business schools need to step up.

In today's society, a successful higher education institution can't be removed from the commercial world. It needs to offer students (our customers) an excellent experience, delivered flexibly and dependent on their needs, which makes a real impact on their careers and lives and, most importantly, provides them with the skills and knowledge that employers today demand. In short, it needs to operate exactly like a business.

Alison Wheaton is CEO at GSM London