The importance of strategic planning in higher education

The importance of strategic planning in higher education

As internationalisation becomes increasingly integral to university operations, it raises the question of institutional capacity and whether the university is in fact able to respond to the new challenges it is facing. Strategic planning is often proposed as a key tool for a more rational and systematic approach to bringing about the necessary changes for greater internationalisation in institutional direction and daily operations.

However, in my experience, many people in universities are cynical about the value of strategic planning in higher education, believing that it does not fit with academic cultures and traditions. I would argue that when an appropriate model is adopted, it not only aligns with the specific needs and behaviours of universities, but also has the potential to turn what is often rhetoric into reality.

While it is true that the practice of strategic planning has been imported from the business world (which had adapted it from the original military model), it is essential to take the specific nature and modes of operation of a university into consideration if strategic planning is to be accepted and embraced both as a concept and a system that can provide direction and facilitate progress.

There are two fundamental differences. One is that universities have value systems guided by principles of long-term investment in educating people and creating and disseminating knowledge, unlike the typically short-term focus on financial results in the business world. Although it could be argued that universities are increasingly required to generate diverse income sources and demonstrate quality and sustainability of their operations to their “stakeholders”, so even this difference might be less prominent in some countries nowadays. Nevertheless, it is clear that a strategic plan that is strongly linked to academic innovation rather than simply financial sustainability will have a better chance of finding support within the university.

The second difference is that a business might choose to take a strong top down approach to driving through decisions and directions, but the nature of shared governance in universities means that it is key to build consensus from the start to ensure involvement and commitment across the various faculties, schools and departments. So while commitment will start at the top with the institutional head indicating direction and articulating the desired future, it will be essential to bring the academic community on board from the very start. It takes much more time and energy to design a process that is both transparent and inclusive, but it is one that is more likely to succeed.

There is a much greater chance that the academic community will identify with – and be willing to implement – the strategic plan if they are involved in the process right from the start, if there is flexibility for them to establish their own contribution and goals within the broader framework. This is a two-way process. While the leadership should provide space for diversity and distinctiveness, the faculties and departments should also recognise the need for vertical and horizontal interdependence within the institution.

If strategic planning in higher education is designed carefully, it creates a space for collaborative implementation and becomes the glue that holds the internationalisation process together. In other words, it can act to strengthen the culture and enable the university to become the institution it wants to be.

By Fiona Hunter, Higher Education Consultant and EAIE Past President