Future-proofing universities

My view - Russ Langley

How do you plan for the future when you have no idea what the future is going to look like?

Uncertainty is a challenge faced by all business leaders, but one that is particularly pertinent for a Higher Education sector where the phrase ‘going through an unprecedented era of change’ seems to have been prominent for a number of years, with no sign of abating any time soon.

When considering future-proof strategies, there are a number of questions for universities to ponder. How to maintain and build market share in an ever-increasingly competitive marketplace? How to add value and have a positive impact on their place and wider society through civic activities? How to engage with industry to understand their future needs and embed these into the current curriculum? How to deliver against the Industrial Strategy and Grand Challenges? How will students of the future want to learn and what do we need to do now in order to prepare?

The list could go on and on, and the universities that will thrive over the next decade will be those best able to answer these questions through understanding their strengths, identifying the opportunities to best capitalise on these, and prioritising resource and effort accordingly in order to deliver successfully.

“Future-proofing: The process of anticipating the future and developing methods of minimising the effects of shocks and stresses due to future events.” Brian Rich, The Principles of Future-Proofing

Doing this is not easy at the best of times. It is particularly challenging against a backdrop of political turmoil with a revolving door of university ministers, shifting demographics which have seen a steady fall in the number of 18 year-olds in the UK (but with a bounce coming from 2021), increased marketisation of Higher Education changing the behaviour of prospective students and institutions alike, and the UK’s precarious position on the global stage.

At the University of Derby, we set out our stall last year with the launch of our 2018-30 Strategic Framework. This laid out our direction of travel and ambitions, based around the 6Ps (Purpose, Promise, Principles, Place, People and Pillars).

Importantly, it is not a detailed blueprint of exactly what we are seeking to achieve over this period and exactly how we are going to do it. This was a conscious decision. What the Framework does provide us with, instead, are the foundations on which to mobilise our staff, engage current and future students, partners and stakeholders, and ensure we are best placed to achieve our promise to deliver ‘excellence and opportunities for our students, staff and region’. In short, it is the vehicle by which we are able to future-proof our University.

Headshot of Russ Langley smiling

The universities that will thrive over the next decade will be those best able to answer these questions through understanding their strengths, identifying the opportunities to best capitalise on these, and prioritising resource and effort.

Russ Langley
Chief Performance Officer


Universities are awash with data on everything from application figures to student satisfaction and space utilisation to graduate destinations. The key is to turn this data into meaningful knowledge and insights, underpinned by a clarity as to exactly what questions you are seeking to answer.

Through this comes the ability to scenario plan and model, thereby informing strategic thinking and tactical decision-making even in the most uncertain of times. Insights also come from networks and, while universities will always want to see themselves as fonts of great knowledge in their own right, there is huge value in them looking beyond their walls, and indeed their sector, to garner ideas and inspiration from elsewhere.


The commercialisation of Higher Education in recent years has naturally created more competition between universities who are jockeying for position in order to attract more students.

However, strong collaboration between institutions must sit at the heart of a successful future-proofing strategy. While in the past such collaborations have often been centred around research activity, we are seeing this broaden out through initiatives such as the Credit Compass recently launched by the Midlands Enterprise Universities network of Derby, Birmingham City, Nottingham Trent, Wolverhampton, Coventry and Lincoln.


Certainly not exclusive to Higher Education is the need to have a workforce which embraces change and is future-fit in terms of skills, knowledge and mindset.

To this end, at Derby we embarked on a Cultural Transformation programme in October 2018 designed to establish the leadership, governance, infrastructure and ways of working needed to embed high performance and a future-focused mentality across the institution. Having the backdrop of the Strategic Framework, providing the clarity of where we are heading, has been important for us in building early momentum and focusing efforts on what will be a sustained body of work over the next three to five years.


The future may be foggy, but we should not be intimidated by it. Ultimately, future-proofing is about making judgement calls – some will be right, some may not – but making such calls on a foundation of insight, working in collaboration, and with the right culture in place, should ensure the former outweighs the latter.