The Zombies are Back

Previously on this blog, I wrote about the work of Mike Boxall of PA Consulting, and his work which suggested that universities could be split into broad groups of Oligarchs, Innovators and Zombies. In fact, Mike came to our Leadership Conference this year to talk about this very topic.


Last week on this blog I wrote about the idea of marginal gains, and this prompted discussion online and face to face with various people. One of the comments on  my blog was a reference to the work of Miles and Snow, who created a typology of the various strategic approaches that organisations can take. This prompted me to go away and read  a little about this, but also to have  a conversation where we could start to build a  linkage between ideas of Mile and Snow, and of Oligarchs, Innovators and Zombies.

With that in mind, and recognising that the UK HE system or market is in a state of flux, it might be worth revisiting what Mike Boxall has been saying recently, and also to look at what is happening with a couple of universities who maybe don’t qualify as innovators or oligarchs.

Mike has revisited the PA report from the summer, which was the annual survey of VC’s attitudes and opinions:

“The responses showed most vice-chancellors to be deeply pessimistic about the outlook for student recruitment and research funding, and predicting widespread institutional failures and mergers. Yet they were almost universally bullish about the prospects for their own institutions’ ability to secure growth and profits from those same problematic sources”

“We have in effect moved from a closed, stable and largely harmonious HE ecosystem to a new open and disrupted market in which the relationships and interdependencies between the internal and external life of universities are being redrawn in real time. This is putting vice-chancellors under new pressures. Wearing their representational hats, they find themselves fighting rear-guard actions against government policies that actively damage the interests of their institutions, such as visa restrictions on overseas students. Meanwhile, wearing their managerial hats, they must persuade their academic communities to recognise that the market genie will not be put back in the bottle, and that they need to reinvent their business.

It is not surprising therefore that surveys such as PA’s reflect apparently contradictory messages from vice-chancellors. On the one hand, they are telling government ministers, who “seem not to be bothered”, that their policies are jeopardising the HE system as we have known it. At the same time, they are telling their institutional stakeholders that there is a bright future beyond Student Number Controls and Resource Allocation Budget charges, if only they can overcome their deep-seated aversion to change”

With this is mind, it’s salutatory to look at two universities in the news in the last week or so.

Firstly, Glyndwr. This week the Times Higher ran a piece suggesting that there were possible merger talks between Glyndwr and Bangor. No evidence was provided, but it was an opportunity for the press to reiterate the problems at that institution – the vote of no confidence in the VC, the poor financial situation and the loss of Highly Trusted Status from UKVI. A zombie maybe?

Contrast this with London Metropolitan. Rarely out of the news last year, London Met has a new VC, formerly of Oxford Brookes, who has taken on the job that some have described as the toughest in HE. Alternatively, it could be viewed as one of the most exciting. As a welcome gift, UKVI reinstated Highly Trusted Status. As reported in the Times Higher, John Raftery has identified a clear strategy for the institution that includes: improving student experience so that a rise in NSS will have a positive effect in league tables; paying st dent mentors to support those in the year below them; embedding work placements in all awards, and also questioning if the entry tariff should be raised (something else that would improve elague table position. Not rocket science, but clear and focused.

So we can see that futures aren’t fixed – zombies might not necessarily always be zombies, and a clearly focused strategy can help with that.

In terms of Miles and Snow, with their typology of defenders, analysers, prospectors and reactors, then London Met seems to be moving firmly into the position of analyser (work, which in truth was already happening with their previous portfolio review work).

In terms of comparison with Mike Boxall’s work, then the place that no-one wants to be is that of reactor (or zombie). An interesting challenge in the last year was the change in SNC announced in the Autumn Statement – no-one forecast it, no-one had a strategy readily in place to deal with it, and so all universities had to react to a significant change in the external environment. What will be interesting in a year’s time when this change has had an impact, is to see who just reacted, and who carried out the analysis to develop a strategy to respond successfully. (My thoughts on this were on my blog).

As always, we need to be in position where we are at least analysers, and ideally developing into either a prospector or innovator.No-one wants to be a reactor or zombie.

Blog supplemental

My colleague, Peter Jones (Head of Psychology Sport and Exercise) has also blogged today about strategy inc Miles and Snow.