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Universities struggle to engage staff with upcoming commercial changes

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University leaders are dealing with unprecedented challenges in the face of an increasingly harsh economic climate, but are struggling to engage staff with the changes, new research claims.

While commercialisation is not a new concept for the sector, a £20 million cut from the Government’s higher education budget means the delivery of a quality service is becoming more difficult by the day.

Research from the Berkshire Consultancy, Degrees of Change, reveals two out of three universities expect a shortfall in their funding by an average of 26%. As a result, nine out of 10 deputy vice chancellors (DVCs) believe closures are possible within the next 10 years, with almost a third admitting that their university is already struggling to cope.

Berkshire Consultancy’s study reveals that a significant degree of change is required in the mindsets of individuals and in the very structure of universities if they are to survive. Developing commercial partnerships will be critical: more than two-thirds of those interviewed believe that investment from business is vital for survival.

Fortunately, universities offer unique services and knowledge needed by businesses worldwide. However, commercialisation can only succeed in any organisation if all levels are engaged in the process. Yet one in two DVCs feel that their university is struggling to engage staff on the issue of commercialisation, and 48% report that academic staff lack an understanding of the environment in which they now operate.

The negative repercussions from a lack of academic buy-in are also found at senior levels, with the majority of DVCs (60%) seeing the over-representation of academics on the governing board as a barrier to success. Moreover, a third of DVCs feel that their management team is resistant to change.

Vice chancellors in the Russell Group are facing an added pressure, with respondents reporting that 22% of their staff actively oppose the move to a more commercial approach (this is halved in red brick and new universities).

Joanna Knight, director, Berkshire Consultancy, said: "Our research indicates that senior leaders in universities see this changing landscape as a real threat to the future of the sector," said. "Business as usual is no longer an option. It has become critical for universities to become even more commercially astute if they want to survive in this changing and highly competitive marketplace."

Sandra Buckley, principal consultant, Berkshire Consultancy, added: "Highly intelligent people are often more difficult to convince of the need for change and are skilled in spotting any flaws in the arguments put forward, particularly if these are poorly articulated. It is imperative that their views and concerns are listened to, to ensure that they are engaged in ways that work for them and are consistent with their values, where these are consistent with the university’s as a whole.

"The advantage universities have is that they already excel in the field of thought leadership and have unique knowledge and services that businesses both want and need. There is a real need to nurture innovative thinking so that staff can use their own initiative to transform ideas into profitable ventures that fit with the goals of the organisation."