Three steps for Agile transformation in higher education

30 November 2023 - Three steps for Agile transformation in higher education



To build resilience in the face of unprecedented challenges, higher education institutions can adopt and embed Agile principles that support the discovery and improvement of solutions through collaborative, joined-up, and aligned teams.

UK universities are facing unprecedented levels of challenge. In PA Consulting's recent survey of UK vice-chancellors, 90 percent agreed that the sector has never faced greater threats or uncertainties. Fierce competition, the reduced value of domestic student fees, fragmented relationships with policy makers, and growing demand for modernisation are just a handful of the hurdles that universities currently contend with. Ongoing economic uncertainty is making it harder to plan and lead change.

To address these challenges, universities can look to Agile ways of working to transform traditional approaches, spark rich and insightful debates, and enable faster iterative improvements – moving from outdated institutions to truly Agile Universities.  

Creating the Agile University

A recent UCISA event, sponsored by PA and supported by University College London (UCL), united more than 80 HE leaders from 26 UK universities as part of the Agile University Movement. The Agile University Movement was proposed by Andy Smith, Chief Information Officer of UCL, to improve collaboration across the HE sector. At the event, HE leaders explored the common challenges of initiating and implementing Agile transformation, uncovering three key focus areas to enable Agile success.

  • 1. Build genuine and unanimous top team commitment

    Engaging with leaders, especially within institutions that are steeped in tradition and subject to regulatory oversight, presents a significant challenge. Many universities struggle to gain institutional buy-in for the case for change, and see issues arising from attempted ground-up Agile change as something for IT to resolve (and therefore not in their remit).

    A successful strategy starts with building consensus to move towards an Agile University approach. This lays the groundwork for broader changes and encourages participation from colleagues across the university. To make this shift, a clear and persuasive case for change is crucial. This case should highlight the benefits of Agile, capitalising on early successes to maximise Agile at scale. Benefits include:

    • Clearly linking the work delivered with universities’ strategic goals
    • Increasing the speed, cadence, and quality of technology delivery
    • Prioritising increased demand to focus scarce resources on the most valuable work
    • Breaking the historically siloed status quo culture to better adapt to change and deliver innovation
    • Improving the perception of, and morale within, IT teams.
  • 2. Create the conditions for success through a culture of change

    When embarking on the journey to organisational agility, a ground-up approach at team level may not catalyse the level of change required. This often results in pockets of Agile with inconsistent ways of working, which can generate confusion and resistance. Embedding Agile goes beyond changing ways of working within teams – it’s about optimising the flow of value through the entire organisation. Careful, considerable groundwork creates the right conditions to move forward and win hearts and minds.

    For UCL, this meant ensuring everyone understood the change required, their role in creating the change, and, importantly, what the change would feel like. The changes centred around four transformation principles: from controlling to empowering; from projects to products; from order taking to co-creating; and from technology focus to user experience. The key wasn’t just creating a clear vision for the future, but repeating the vision often and consistently so employees understood how it would reduce their existing frustrations. Ongoing leadership visibility and engagement signalled continued commitment to the change while leading by example.

  • 3. Cut out the compromises to scale beyond pockets of Agile 
  • Compromise isn’t always the answer. Compromise can impede responsiveness and early value realisation, as well as limit employee empowerment. So, it’s important to be clear about the non-negotiables of the target operating model.

    Change portfolios’ help to link the work delivered with a university’s strategic initiatives. These stable, long-lived Agile teams focus on transforming and supporting strategic initiatives such as student experience. Embedding Agile governance within the target operating model aligns change portfolios with strategy; decentralises decision-making within agreed guardrails; and supports decisions with fast, integrated feedback loops. This leads to more accurate, consistent delivery. A flexible funding model can support new opportunities and emerging priorities, allowing adjustments to change portfolio budgets over time. Allocating funding to long-lived teams and outcomes continuously improves resilience and responsiveness – crucial in a time of unprecedented challenges for the sector.

    Cutting out compromises doesn’t mean operating models can’t and shouldn’t be adapted. It’s always important to test models through pilots that embrace the core elements and principles of the target operating model. Empirical evidence, provided by pilots, helps to scale Agile ways of working through gaining buy-in. The optimal pilot candidate is a valuable product or service that isn’t overly complex and has strong stakeholder support. Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) are a compelling choice due to their clear alignment with universities' core initiative (better student experience), potential end-user value, defined boundaries, and capacity for iterative development.

    The transformative power of an Agile approach lies in closer collaboration and enhancing the ability to address evolving challenges – ultimately driving entire HE institutions, and the sector as a whole, to make vital and much-needed strides.

If you are interested in joining the Agile Movement, please email

Blog written by Amy Nneji, PA transformation expert and Mark Wilson, PA agile expert.