Portfolio review and strategy: the road to success in Higher Education


Ed Layt, Head of Consultancy, SMRS


Over the last 2 years, we’ve worked with a number of HE providers to review and develop new portfolio and curriculum strategies that are market informed and skills led. From Teesside University, BCU and the University of Wolverhampton to the University of the Highlands and Islands, we’ve been presented with a range of objectives and challenges to overcome by enhancing competitive positioning, improving portfolio governance and evolving product offerings to better meet current and future demands.

We’ve helped these universities and others, by analysing performance data, macro-environmental factors, the competitive landscape and feedback from employers/industry and students and in this post, I want to share four factors that I believe are critical in the delivery of a successful review of portfolio strategy.

  1. Performance – achieving a competitive advantage

Our starting place for reviewing portfolios is always in the data. When examining recruitment metrics, it’s essential to consider them within the context of your true competitors, rather than comparing them to the entire market. This approach reveals hidden strengths often overlooked in broader, national analyses. But our analysis is never limited to recruitment metrics alone. Application and enrolment figures must be considered alongside continuation rates, progression rates, student satisfaction and other internal benchmarks for a true picture of strengths and weaknesses. Although this breadth of data points can seem overwhelming, we’ve found it to be essential in building effective insights and justification for change. Something which just can’t be achieved by using a single data source or biased information such as site traffic.

  1. Context – macro and micro perspectives

Next up comes the importance of context. Data is hugely valuable in understanding portfolio opportunities, but without a contextual framework, it can also be significantly misleading. Understanding the macro environmental context is crucial in deciphering why certain performance metrics might be behaving the way they are. Is it due to the curriculum, the marketing of the portfolio or external factors beyond the institution’s control? By examining broader trends, such as changes in government policies, funding, competitor behaviour or student demographics, we have been able to contextualise performance data and inform strategic decision-making.

On a micro level, we have worked with universities to understand the structure of their portfolio, identifying connections between modules or programmes that may support or cloud the true performance of an area. This granular understanding has helped to uncover hidden opportunities and threats, enabling universities to make informed adjustments to their portfolio and curriculum offerings.

  1. Contradictions – navigating multiple perspectives

Contradictions often arise when balancing various perspectives. For instance, a mismatch may exist between employer demand for specific skills and student interest in corresponding courses. These discrepancies underscore the absence of a one-size-fits-all solution to portfolio development. However, they also highlight the importance of data integration from multiple sources, such as employers, students, and academic staff, and the need to carefully analyse supply and demand dynamics to navigate these contradictions and develop well-rounded strategies that cater to diverse stakeholder needs.

  1. Co-creation – building a shared vision

To achieve change and innovation in portfolio and curriculum development, it is vital to engage internal stakeholders in the process. We’ve found that co-creating solutions with academic and professional staff throughout the process, not only leads to better outcomes but also fosters ownership and commitment to the shared vision – turning difficult decisions and challenging choices into simpler and unquestionable ones.

Bringing it all together

Successfully enhancing higher education offerings necessitates a multi-faceted approach. Performance assessment, understanding both the macro and micro context, reconciling contradictions, and co-creating solutions with stakeholders are the four cornerstones of a robust strategy. We’ve learnt that this approach can really help foster a shared vision for success and above all, it’s helped our clients refine their competitive position and better cater to current and future demands.

Embarking on a review of a portfolio and curriculum, whether big or small in scale, can be an overwhelming task. So please get in contact and we’d be happy to share our insight into making it a successful process and see how we can help on your journey. ed.layt@smrs.co.uk.