How can universities enhance the strategic development of the academic portfolio?

woman conducting orchestra 

With the publication of a new report (Innovation in the Market Assurance of new Programmes) on how universities manage the strategic development of the academic portfolio, Paul Coyle, i-MAP Director, considers some of the associated leadership and governance challenges.

What is i-MAP?

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 portfolio of taught undergraduate and postgraduate programmes. 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, is a follow-up to the original Project. The Study re-examined new programme development and also considered how universities mange the closure of academic provision.

How can leaders support portfolio development?

One of the main recommendations made by the Project was that new programme development should be a collaborative process, which enables the contributions of a variety of staff including academics and staff from finance, marketing, planning, quality, and student recruitment. Such a team-based approach can be successfully facilitated by a senior leader, at Pro Vice-Chancellor level or above, who can co-ordinate the work of the academics and professional support staff.

Those university leaders charged with managing this activity need to be skilled at facilitating shared decision-making, whilst also ensuring that difficult issues are faced and resolved.

Where are the challenges?

In 2014, the follow up Study found that universities were still reporting that a significant number of new programmes were failing to recruit a viable first cohort of students. Universities should note that the original Project recommendations remain valid, especially in a more competitive environment. The Study also found that there are significant challenges associated with the closure of programmes, particularly deciding how to deal with “the walking dead” i.e. programmes that had been suffering from on-going poor recruitment for many years.

Might there be an enhanced role for the Governing Body?

The Study found increasing interest from Governing Bodies in academic portfolio management and the connections to financial sustainability. Whilst members of Governing Bodies are unlikely to be involved in decisions about individual programmes, they might provide support for those universities who identified a need for better integration of academic and financial planning. The recently updated HE Code of Governance, published by the Committee of University Chairs, offers useful guidance, although ultimately, the role of the Governing Body is a matter for individual HEIs.

What next?

Both the report of the Project and the report of the Study are available for download. i-MAP consultancy services designed to support universities to implement the i-MAP recommendations are available, with the support of the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education. A network of interested individuals and organisations, who have participated in the Project and/or the Study, will continue discussions, share relevant information and case studies. New participants are welcome. Further information can be found at

Innovation in the Market Assurance of new Programmes was launched at the Securing Student Recruitment by Managing the Academic Portfolio conference, today (30 September) and the Leadership Foundation chief executive Alison Johns opened the event. The study will be available on Thursday 1 October 2015 at

Paul Coyle is a leadership, innovation and change management consultant supporting the development of universities in Europe and the UK. He can be contacted at