Competitive Strategies in Higher Education
This study emphasises the role of heads of departments in higher education. They are in a key position to shape the
future direction and strategy of their subunits. They can also make an important contribution to the strategy of the
whole organisation, which should be broad enough to allow different competitive strategies of subunits. The results of
this study show that the strategies of overall cost leadership, differentiation and focus, known in business literature,
can be successfully applied to higher education. This is especially true in market-led continuing education. Examples
from the Finnish higher education sector are cited.
The role of heads of department has attracted the attention of educational researchers only comparatively
recently (e.g. Floyd and Wooldridge, 1996, Gold, 1998). However, reference to the importance of involving
heads of departments and other staff in key decisions is frequently noted (e.g. Dearing, 1994). This study is
a theoretical analysis on strategic management and makes a contribution to the literature by focusing on
the heads of departments and competitive strategies of subunits in higher education.
The strategic process means the manner and style in which teaching, management and support processes
are planned for a better future. Many heads of department are usually involved in helping to shape the
strategic plans of educational institutions, primarily by commenting on drafts of the whole institutional
plan. Their role can, however, be much larger, because they are responsible for developing their own
departmental plans with their staff.
One key choice in strategic planning is the decision whether the central plan is created and translated into
more localised planning in departments or whether strategic planning is an amalgam of subunit
development plans. The central plan cannot be a collection of separate plans produced by subunits. There
is a need for a whole-organisational approach, which gives general broad lines and which is
mediated by, for example, the approving board of governors. There is also a need to create ownership and
give content to the central plan by allowing subunits to contribute their own strategic aims to the central
The broad lines of the central plan provide the basis for the subunit strategic plans. It is emphasised in this
study that the central plan should be broad enough to allow subunits to develop their own competitive
strategies. These strategies of subunits can be highly different from each other depending the public
control, funding regulations and other constraints. If the central plan and environmental changes are
taken into account, the plans produced by subunits usually need only minor modification.
Michael Porter (1990) has introduced three potentially successful competitive strategies, which are the
overall cost leadership, differentiation and focus. The aim of this study is to explore how the competitive
strategies known in the business literature can be applied to market-oriented educational institutions.
These generic strategies provide an interesting basis for the strategic management of subunits in higher
Higher education institutions face competition from universities, polytechnics, private training companies
and consultants. They must respond to the complex factors making an impact on the demand for
education. At the same time, they are constrained by state control of the methods in which they may
operate. Their strategies are, therefore, planned in an environment which is a hybrid of commercial and
public sector constituents.
Heads of department often have very little time for strategic thinking and planning, either within their
department, or across the school as a whole (Earley and Fletcher-Campbell, 1992). Heads of departments
may spend much of their time teaching, routine administration and crisis management. An effective head
of department is able to think strategically about what is in the best long-term interest for the future of the
subunit and the organisation as a whole.
Strategic management can be seen a matter of essential economic analysis and planning. It can also be seen
as a matter of organisational decision making, within a social, political and cultural process (Johnson and
Scholes, 1993). Strategic management involves taking a view of the whole organisation, its place in its
environment, its values and culture, its key purpose, its direction and its strategic choice for the better
future. Strategic management is a matter of bridge building or mapping the route between the perceived
present situation and the desired future situation (West-Burnham, 1994).
The strategic approach to management allows the heads of educational institutions to develop their
organisations holistically and to integrate curriculum, staff, finance and external relations. Strategic
planning is a continuous process in administration which links goal-setting, policy-making, short-term
and long-term planning, budgeting and spans all levels of the organisation. The rapid pace of change
means that strategy is an evolving, ongoing and uncertain process.
There is much in written business literature, which is not relevant for education. Educational institutions
are not in an open market, where they are free to change course, according to any sudden environmental
changes, or to close down and begin again. However, there is a part of business
literature which is relevant to education, and it does seem that there are elements of the business approach
to planning that are relevant in higher education. Porter’s (1990) concepts of competitive strategies can be
successfully applied to the educational environment.
There is likely to be a range of constraints imposed by national government, local stakeholders or the
competitiveness from neighbouring institutions. These include the imposition of financial regimes, which
relate to the ambiguous position of educational institutions in operating within the public sector in a
competitive business environment.
The external imperatives have to be taken into account, when developing a plan, and decisions have to be
made regarding the external factors are most important for the particular institutional context. These
constraints may be highly variable in different subunits of educational institutions. Therefore, a specific
competitive strategy reflecting its particular circumstances is required for each subunit.
The strategic planning covers usually a time scale of three to five years. Any shorter-term development
planning is produced from the strategic plan, relating to a time scale of approximately one year. These
shorter-term plans include targets and performance indicators, and indicate the details of a specific action.
Heads of departments are in a key position to implement strategies.
Self-management and accountability
Over recent years there has been a shift in many countries to greater autonomy and self-management of
schools, colleges and higher education institutions. Examples can be found in Australia, England and
Wales, Hong Kong, Israel, New Zealand and the USA (Bush and Coleman, 2000). Central governments
have put great pressure on educational leaders to inspire their staff towards improvement.
Caldwell and Spinks (1992) show that self-management is underpinned by the following assumptions:
n Managers will be more responsive to their clients if they are able to determine the nature and quality
n Managers will be able to determine the precise mix of resources allocated to the education in order to
achieve the objectives.
n Staff will have the incentive to maximise efficiency in the use of resources in order to use the savings
to enhance the quality of education further.
n Standards will rise as clients articulate their needs and educational institutions respond to these needs,
to satisfy the enrolled students and attract new.
The international trend of education systems towards greater autonomy and self-governance has changed
the demands for those who assume the responsibility to manage the institutions. Choices have to be made
at a national level regarding the broad lines of educational policy, but an increasing number of decisions
have to be made at the institutional level.
Higher education institutions have found themselves in the position of undertaking planning which will
determine the institution’s continued survival and development in a highly competitive environment.
Institutions have been left with the task of interpreting external requirements rather than determining
directly the aims of institutions.
The greater autonomy for educational institutions has been accompanied by a significantly increased
market orientation. Education is moving from a public service driven by professionals to a market-driven
service, fueled by customers. Strategic management requires the ability to integrate different aspects of the
educational institution to ensure the best possible economic and educational outcomes.
Higher education institutions have to recognize the accountability of their plans and implementation,
because they are bounded by legislation, public control and financing, Even though their income may be
crucial, the public service is not only for competitive advantage but also for specific educational purposes.
Accountability means that higher education institutions operate within defined purposes, strategies and
visions for the future to satisfy the demands of public control. Further, heads of departments are
accountable for their strategic plans to senior management and the public control, but much depends
upon the nature and quality of internal strategic management at the subunit level.
The role of heads of departments
This part of the study analyses the role of heads of departments in matters of strategy and strategic
management. It is emphasised that strategic management of heads of departments can be crucial for
organisational success. This is important, if the educational and business environments of departments are
different from each other. Especially in larger organisations, a greater degree of responsibility has been
devoted to subunits.
Floyd and Wooldridge (1996) emphasise the importance of middle management in formulation and
implementation of strategies. They point out that the strategic roles of middle managers are to champion
innovative initiatives, facilitate adaptability to new behaviour, synthesise information within and outside
the organisation and implement strategy. Middle managers include administrative managers, who also
have an input to make in strategic management.
Heads of departments are curriculum and programme managers, who have a major responsibility for the
planning and implementation of organisational aims and objectives as expressed in strategic plans.
Leaders need assistants who can articulate the results in practical terms and work with their colleagues to
turn the strategy into reality. Heads of departments have also an important role in passing information
and ideas from the front line to organisational leaders.
Heads of departments are likely to be perceived by organisational leaders as an important source of
information concerning the external world and its likely impact on their areas of responsibility or
expertise. Managers have responsibility for the work of other adults and their activities such as planning,
organising, resourcing, controlling, evaluating and leading. They have an important role in strategic
planning and decision-making at both subunit and central level.
Heads of departments can be criticised by senior staff for their rather limited or subject-bound
perspectives. These views may, however, be regarded as an advantage for the organisation, but on the
other hand, the subject-bound thoughts and competitive strategies of subunits should not be in
contradiction with the strategy of the whole organisation.
Involvement of subunits in strategic matters is likely to vary according to the nature of education, type of
customers, funding bodies and regulations. It is also likely to vary according to the nature and culture of
the organisation. A key question is whether the subunits are expected or encouraged to be involved in
strategy formulation and link the strategy to subunits’ external environment?
According to Peters (1988) the essence of strategy is the creation of organisational capabilities that will
allow the persons to react opportunistically to whatever happens. In the fully developed organisation, the
front line person should also be capable of being involved in strategy making. All teachers and planners in
higher education are managers in that they are responsible for the management of students, the
management of the learning process and resources.
An organisation is developed to achieve certain goals of objectives by group activity (Cyert, 1975). In the
strategy process all the members of the organisation should envision its future and develop the necessary
procedures to achieve that future. It can be emphasised that heads of departments have an important role
in the formulating the strategy of a subunit with all its members in order to reach the educational
objectives, increase its competitive advantage and also the well-being of the whole organisation.
The evaluation of strategies
Strategic evaluation may be used at the formulation stage to judge the merits of particular strategic
alternatives. Johnson and Scholes (1993) suggest the strategic evaluation criteria of suitability, feasibility
and acceptability as benchmarks against which organisations might judge the merits of particular
strategies. The evaluation of strategic options requires sensible judgments on how these requirements
should be weighed against each other.
Suitability is a criterion for assessing the extent to which a proposed strategy is consistent with the
environment in which it is operating. A series of questions can be raised to evaluate the strategic options.
Does the strategy exploit the strengths of the subunit and whole organisation? How far does the strategy
overcome the difficulties identified in the strategic analysis? How well are the strategies of subunits in line
with the strategy of the whole organisation? Does the strategy adopted fit in with the main purpose of the
Feasibility is a criterion for assessing whether the strategy can be implemented successfully. Can the
necessary market position be achieved? Can the strategy be funded? Are the subunits and organisation
capable of performing the required level? Will the reactions of heads of departments, staff and students be
manageable? How will the organisation ensure that the required knowledge and skills are available in each
subunit of the organisation?
The acceptability criterion is related to internal and external relationships. The key question to be
considered is, how acceptable are the strategies of subunits to each other and the overall strategy? Will the
strategy match the expectations of students, teachers, managers and senior staff? Another key question is
related to the expectations of stakeholders. Each stakeholder who is concerned about the activities and
performance of the educational institution has its own set of criteria to determine how well the
organisation is performing.
Strategic evaluation using the criteria of suitability, feasibility and acceptability emphasise the need to
formulate different strategies for subunits. The strategic analysis of subunits, which operate in
their specific environments, lead to different kinds of strategic choices. The capabilities, knowledge and
skills may be highly variable across the subunits, and therefore, different kinds of steps can be taken in the
future. Furthermore, the expectations of stakeholders emphasise the need to define specific strategies for
Generic competitive strategies
This section describes the generic strategies presented by Porter (1990) and explores how heads of
departments can use them to define the strategies of departments. It turns out that the competitive
strategies of companies can be successfully used in higher education institutions, particularly in
continuing education centres, which operate in a market-led environment.
The best strategy of an organisation is ultimately a unique construction, which reflects its particular
circumstances. Porter (1990) has presented three internally consistent generic strategies, which can be used
singly or in combination to create a strong position in the long run. The three strategies are overall cost
leadership, differentiation and focus. The three generic strategies are alternative approaches to dealing
with the competitive markets.
The organisation failing to develop its strategy, in at least one of the three directions, is in an extremely
poor strategic situation. Such an organisation is almost guaranteed low profitability and quality. The
organisation stuck in this position should make a fundamental decision to develop its strategy. An
organisation stuck in the middle of competitive strategies must either take steps to achieve cost
effectiveness or at least cost parity, which involves aggressive measures to develop the process.
Alternatively, it must differentiate itself to achieve some uniqueness. The third strategy is to focus itself on
a particular target market.
Effectively implementing any of these strategies requires total commitment and supporting arrangements.
A large organisation can, however, have more than one primary target in its departments or subunits and
pursue more than one approach, if there are different environments, competitive situations and
supporting organisational arrangements in these subunits.
Overall cost leadership
The strategy of overall cost leadership is achieved through a set of functional policies aimed at this basic
objective. Cost leadership requires the construction of efficient-scale facilities and a vigorous pursuit of
cost reductions in areas such as research and development, service and marketing. A great deal of
managerial attention is necessary in order to achieve cost efficiency.
A low-cost position provides substantial entry barriers in terms of cost advantages or scale economies. A
low-cost position defends the organisation against powerful buyers. A strategy of overall cost leadership is
an appropriate choice in markets where the price level is relatively low defined by the public sector
funding bodies or due to a hard competition in the market. Low cost also provides a defence against input
cost increases. Achieving a low overall cost position often requires favourable access to input.
The general objective of a higher education institution is to promote its students’ learning within a
curriculum, which is suitable to the environment, feasible to the organisation and acceptable to its
stakeholders. An educational institution should meet these ends efficiently and effectively.
In such an organization tensions will arise between the professional autonomy and managerial control.
The head of the educational institution and heads of departments have the dual roles of a leading
professional and chief executive.
The terminology is not always clear and consistently used. According to Simkins (1998) efficiency means
the achievement of given outcomes at least cost and effectiveness means the matching of results with
objectives. Efficiency and effectiveness require that academic managers in higher education institutions
should be aware of the full cost of the activities.
Efficiency is defined in an educational context as property, which makes good use of all its available
resources to achieve the best possible educational outcomes for all its students and in doing so provides
excellent value for money. The concept of effectiveness is often used among the key performance
The centrally driven funding mechanism which emphasises the management of inputs encourages
institutions to develop resource management strategies based on efficiency, but on the other hand, the
mechanism which emphasises the outcome leads to performance based on effectiveness. The findings of
earlier studies of schools suggest that losers are more likely to concentrate on efficiency strategies. On the
other hand, winners use effectiveness strategies. The winners also use the opportunity to increase the
resources (Simkins, 1994). Much seems to depend on the style of management.
The Open University in Finland is able to derive benefits from the favourable access to input, because it
uses the faculty teachers. They are able to teach the same course at the Open University, as in the
department of the faculty with relatively low costs. A low overall cost position may well require designing
products easy to produce. The arrangement of joint courses by the Open University with the department
of the faculty is one way to reach this requirement efficiently.
The position of low overall costs is achieved in the labour market training of Finnish continuing education
centres by their own teaching staff. Own teaching staff is used, because faculty teachers are typically not
available. The management of visiting teachers brings costs and they are usually more expensive
compared to own staff. This may require maintaining a wide line of related courses to spread costs and
serve all the major customer groups to build sufficient volume. Once achieved, the high margins of the
low-cost position can be reinvested in new equipment, facilities and knowledge to maintain cost
A low-cost education does not mean developing programmes which are significantly better than others.
The target is not to provide the highest quality, but to produce a low-cost product, which has sufficient
quality. A low-cost strategy means to develop an educational product that is truly simple to produce and
has a low price and finally a high market share.
The differentiation strategy is achieved creating something perceived as being unique in educational
markets. An organisation may differentiate itself within several dimensions. Differentiation can be
achieved by brand image, technology, customer service or other dimensions. The differentiation strategy
does not allow ignoring costs, but rather they are not the primary strategic target.
Differentiation is a viable strategy for earning above-average returns, because it creates a defensible
position for coping with competitive forces. Differentiation yields higher margins, since brand-loyal
buyers lack comparable alternatives and are thereby less price sensitive. The customer loyalty and
uniqueness provide entry barriers for the competitors, because the organisation is better positioned
against substitutes than its competitors.
Differentiation is a viable strategy in educational markets, because the objective of many institutions is the
brand loyalty by customers. This is especially true in market-led continuing education, but there are also
brands in public funded education. A degree is an educational brand. A highly recognised degree
motivates students in effective learning. Students aiming for a degree are not likely to select courses that
cannot be included in the program.
An educational program following the differentiation strategy may have a prestigious title such as Master
of Business Administration (MBA), it may have extremely high-quality courses abroad, the best lecturers
and good care of customers, all of which are crucial in attracting high-income business managers to this
expensive education (Kettunen, 1999, 2000). Differentiation requires a perception of exclusivity.
There are many Master’s programs, which may follow the differentiation strategy. A Master of Quality,
Master of Security, Master of Social Work and Health Care and many others provide attractive titles.
Exclusivity is reached within executive management education and conferences by carefully selecting the
participants or using world-famous academics and other outstanding persons within their field to give
Students nationwide acknowledge the superiority of the differentiated education, which is based on
extensive research, educational planning, high quality teaching and intensive student support. It also
requires strong marketing abilities, reputation for quality, a long tradition and amenities to attract highly
skilled labour, scientists and creative people. However, not all customers are willing or able to pay the
required higher fees.
The strategy of focusing on a particular customer group or segment of the product line may take several
forms. The focus can be on a geographic market, an occupational group, at organisational level or a type of
education. The functional policy is developed to serve a particular target very well. It is assumed that it is
possible to serve the narrow strategic target more efficiently or effectively than other organisations which
are operating more broadly.
Even though the focus strategy does not aim to achieve low costs or differentiation, it does achieve one or
both of these positions. As a result of the focus strategy the organisation achieves lower costs, because of
low-cost production or its distribution system. Alternatively, the organisation is better able to meet the
specialised needs of the particular customer. The focus strategy implies limitations on the over-all market
share achievable, because it involves a trade-off between profitability and sales volume.
The focus strategy may mean reducing the customer list to the main leading customers or chains. The
focus strategy approaches the concept of collaboration. Cardno (1990) defines collaboration as a term
employed to express partnership, cooperation, agreement, consent and working in combination to
accomplish institutional objectives.
A close collaboration with one specific customer is an extreme form of focus strategy. Some educational
institutions in Finland, for example, Jollas Instituutti and K-instituutti, serve only certain large retail
companies. The focus strategy implies limitations on the over-all market share achievable, but involves
trade-off between profitability and sales volume.
A specific form of focus strategy is to serve certain occupational groups. For example, The Educational
Unit of Vantaa Institute for Continuing Education, which belongs to the University of Helsinki, has for a
long time focused on the continuing education of teachers and principals of primary and secondary
schools. It has reduced its customer list mainly to the city of Vantaa and other municipalities in the
Occupation-specific training is predominant at the continuing education centres of Finnish polytechnics.
Typically the basic education at polytechnics are occupation oriented compared to the subject-oriented
training at universities. Therefore the strategy of focus applied to occupations is a natural choice at the
A key challenge for those who are responsible for managing higher education institutions is the
development of approaches to strategic management both at whole institution and subunit levels. The
educational objectives should lead the process of strategic management, which ensures these purposes
and not the other way round. The overall strategy should be broad enough to allow the definition of
different competitive strategies for subunits to meet the different educational objectives.
Heads of departments have also an important role to offer advice, information and intelligence and
thereby to think strategically for the future of the whole organisation. They are expected to think and act
strategically in their own areas of responsibility. This is particularly important if the educational and
business environment is different for the departments of the educational institution.
The higher education institutions which define their strategy predominantly in terms of senior
management responsibilities at the top level of the organisation are unlikely to be making the best
outcomes. It is important to encourage heads of departments and their staff to participate in their own
strategy process in order to find out their competitive strategy, which is in line with the strategy of the
institution as a whole.
It turns out that the three generic competitive strategies can be applied in the subunits of higher education
institutions. This is especially true in the competitive markets of continuing education. The strategies of
overall cost leadership, differentiation and focus, which have been presented in business literature,
provide a good basis for the strategic management of subunits.
Typical examples of overall cost leadership are the Open University and the labour market training, which
have generally low fees defined by funding bodies. Management education and degree-level education at
university follow the strategy of differentiation. Focus strategy is applied in educational institutions which
serve only certain chains of companies or organisations. It is also applied in continuing education which is
targeted to certain occupations and geographical areas.
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