Why are universities increasingly taking a more market-led approach to their core business?

Managing the academic portfolio

On the 30 September 2015, representatives of 47 English universities gathered in central London to discuss the findings and recommendations of the i-MAP study. Senior academics and professional support staff (from planning, quality, marketing and recruitment) considered the results of an investigation into how universities manage their academic portfolios.

i-MAP stands for Innovation in the Market Assurance of new Programmes. The i-MAP Project, first published in 2012, considered how universities develop their academic portfolios. Specifically, it investigated whether universities might increase the number of new programmes that recruit a viable first cohort of students by adopting a more market-led approach. The i-MAP study, conducted in 2014-15, explored the impact of the original project and also considered how universities manage the closure of academic provision.

What are the drivers of change?

The UK higher education sector is highly successful with a strong global reputation. Universities are committed to securing the highest quality of student experience and high levels of student satisfaction.  Against this background, universities reported that the most significant drivers for change in the academic portfolio were a more competitive environment and a challenging recruitment position in some subjects and programmes. There was also increasing interest from governing bodies in the connections between academic and financial planning.

i-MAP findings

The original project recommendations sought to address the key questions of whether universities could increase effectiveness by having more new programmes which were successful at launch, and if they could improve efficiency by controlling the costs of development. The project found that less than 10 per cent of new programmes recruited a viable first cohort of students. The recent study appears to show that this figure has risen to around 30 per cent. If the costs of the unsuccessful programmes could be avoided, then these resources could be invested elsewhere.

The study also explored how universities decide to close academic provision. Universities reported significant challenges. Problems often need to be managed over the extended period of running a programme out, and it takes time to fully realise the savings of closing a programme, with ongoing costs and reducing income. Universities reported that they are working to safeguard the student interest during the implementation of these types of change. 

The way forward

The success rate of new programmes and the closure of under-performing ones are important issues. However, they must be seen in the context that many universities have a strong core of highly successful and well-established programmes. The question is how to improve efficiency and effectiveness, while maintaining quality and safeguarding student interest.

The study acknowledges the diversity of the higher education sector and the autonomy of individual institutions. As such, it reflects back to the sector, a range of issues and practices that individual institutions can use to assess their current performance and inform their strategic development of the academic portfolio.

A range of consultancy services to support institutions are available via i-MAP with the support of the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education. We aim to maintain a network of interested individuals and organisations who have participated in the project and/or the study. The plan is to continue discussions across this network, to share relevant information and case study materials.

Further information is available on the i-MAP website.


Paul Coyle is the i-MAP Director, and an innovation, leadership and change management consultant supporting the development of universities in Europe and the UK. He can be contacted at paul@profpaulcoyle.com