Reimagining university life: how operational leaders are creating the post-Covid campus

“University chief operating officers had an opportunity to rapidly transform operations and find new ways to partner with their executive peers”

Across the globe, universities are planning for a post-pandemic future. Many university chief operating officers are thinking about what the bricks-and-mortar campus should look like if hybrid teaching becomes the norm.

If students are hesitant to return to packed lectures in large theatres and staff are unwilling to commute five days a week, how should universities use their campuses? And how can operational leaders support faculty and students as they research, teach and learn in new ways?

To help COOs answer these and other important questions, Nous Group recently surveyed more than 70 leaders in operations at universities in Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand and the UK. We’ve used our findings to identify with the priorities we think will characterise what university COOs do next.

The pandemic resulted in financial shocks, staff restructuring and a switch to virtual learning, while many students and staff sought wellbeing support. While this presented university COOs with challenges, it also meant they had an opportunity to rapidly transform operations and find new ways to partner with their executive peers.

Take the move to virtual learning. The pandemic radically accelerated a shift to a more digitally-driven business model as institutions worked intensively to build the digital infrastructures needed to support student and academic life in lockdown.

As managing this digital shift rose up leaders’ agenda, on-campus maintenance and services became less of a priority. Nearly half (45%) of the COOs we surveyed said they reduced spending on campus investment during the pandemic.

Yet bricks-and-mortar campuses seem unlikely to become a thing of the past.

Studies show that most students still want the opportunity to be physically located in an academic community, although this doesn’t preclude online educational delivery. As a result, 78% of the university COOs we surveyed reported that the drive to improve the on-campus experience for students remains central to their institutional strategy.

All this represents a tremendous opportunity for COOs to make major changes and embed them for the future.

That opportunity includes considering ways to make online instruction as supportive and flexible as possible, ensuring that underrepresented, vulnerable and disadvantaged learners are not left behind. It also involves thinking carefully about how offering flexible options for staff can improve their working experience and help to attract and retain talent.

COOs should particularly consider how to improve the face-to-face campus experience. How can universities best unlock value from underutilised spaces?

One idea is to create more on-campus research precincts, where students and staff can connect with industry to undertake collaborative learning and development opportunities.

The move to digitally enabled service models outside campus has also triggered demand for a more service-oriented university culture.

For students, fees contribute to their perception of themselves as customers, making them sensitive to service quality. COOs know the impact poor student experience can have on the university; in our survey, 77% said improving service effectiveness was their top priority.

Therefore many university COOs are pursuing large-scale transformation initiatives to replace outdated digital systems with new ones based on next-generation technologies. This is helping to create digitally connected “smart campuses” that can improve facility management and lower operational costs, while enhancing staff and student experiences.

But what should university COOs prioritise as they come up with new master plans for the campus experience?

First, they must step up as institutional change leaders. That means supporting their institution’s workforce as it adapts to new technologies and new ways of working. This will be key to achieving service effectiveness.

The second step is to rise to the digital challenge. The pandemic necessitated rapid digital change, but now leaders must use the momentum gained to push through efficiency and quality gains. This will enable COOs to unlock service effectiveness while delivering the benefits of a physical campus.

Finally, investing in data analytics will be essential for COOs to champion change and enhance their strategic decision making. Establishing good data governance and clear data ownership, while ensuring data is shared appropriately across the institution, will be vital.

By prioritising these three factors, COOs can better position their institutions to thrive in a post-Covid world.

About the author: Zac Ashkanasy is a Principal and Global Head of Higher Education at Nous Group. He supports higher education clients across Australia, the UK and Canada on a range of organisational and strategic challenges.

Download a copy of Building thePlanePlan While Flying it: the Challenges of a Contemporary University COO.