How can we innovatively address funding challenges as a sector?

This blog has been contributed by Sarah Everett-Cox, Chief Finance Officer at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, University of London.

In September 2023, I took up the post as CFO for The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, University of London overseeing the areas of Finance, People and Culture, IT and Estates. The opportunity to move to this newly created role for a small, specialist provider within the sector was exciting. I had previously spent 18 years at the University of Bristol, most recently as the Finance Director, Research and, prior to that, leading successful business partnering teams. The move gave me a chance to think about how my experience and expertise could help shape and deliver strategy within an environment where I would likely (or so I thought) face new and different challenges to what I’d previously encountered.

With responsibility for such a large portfolio, it was clear that my teams and I would have some key areas to review if we were going to deliver on the School’s strategic objectives. However, as I began to get stuck in, I quickly realised that – although the size and shape of the School were different – the long-term challenges were familiar to those I’d encountered at larger higher education institutions (HEIs). They were centred around understanding resource requirements and constraints, integrating financial planning with operational delivery, and helping to build a culture of responsibility and accountability.

Another thing I began to notice was the use of the term ‘small and specialist’ in conversations, with colleagues both inside and outside of the institution. It was interesting to see how it translated, often being used as a catalyst for discussion around the reasons for challenges or, sometimes, for why they were unsurmountable.

It would follow that if a “broken funding model” for small and specialist institutions (SSIs) would result in things being unachievable, that larger universities must somehow have things easier. In my experience, this just isn’t the case. In fact, these discussions mirror ones I’ve heard at much larger institutions, regardless of their size or subject. From concerns around funding to infrastructure, available resources and even the environment, the challenges we face in delivering our strategic objectives are the same – whatever our institution’s size.

If we accept that the funding model makes things unachievable, or that other institutions are having an easier time of it, it can hinder us in thinking innovatively about how to address the collective issues we face.

Terminology can sometimes mistakenly be interpreted as a lack of interest in innovation, or in finding solutions to problems through new ways of working, and this isn’t the reality on the ground. HEIs, and especially small and specialist institutions, are renowned for their innovative and collaborative thinking, for creating space for change and evolution. So how can we bring this spirit of innovation into addressing our shared challenges?

One way is for our professional services teams to hold up a mirror and reflect on these sentiments, to blow away some of the smoke and to start some genuine interventions.

To begin to lead the way, we must have a transparent and authentic narrative and be ready to take responsibility in our strategic direction and decision making. This is essential to balance what we need to drive ourselves, whilst also remaining engaged with Government and funding bodies.

My team and I are excited to respond to these challenges, and some of the ways we are approaching them are by:

  • exploring and embracing sector opportunities such as those offered by London Higher;
  • working to develop partnerships across the whole of the sector and to find collaborative ways to share, e.g. technical capacity and expertise;
  • standardising processes;
  • underpinning these processed through the development of policies to provide a strong framework; and
  • balancing data with quality insight to shape our provision for students, staff, and our communities for the future.

As small institutions, we can demonstrate our capability by taking the lead. We must balance the nature of what we do and the narratives around what makes us specialists in our fields with a wider, sector recognition that we operate within a very standard business model. We have a huge opportunity if we can accept that, even within small and specialist institutions, our structures, systems, and processes don’t have to also be specialist. Just as in larger institutions, what’s needed most is for them to be reliable, resilient and, in the long term, sustainable.