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During our time working in higher education in a number of different roles—administrator, manager registrar and academic—there was one phrase we dreaded above all others: "We've engaged some consultants to help us with that."

Consultants in higher education are rarely welcome. Often seen as mercenaries, or as cover for a management team seeking  to make staff reductions, our experience is that above all, they are regarded as outsiders - not only to particular institutions, but to the culture of higher education more widely. Fundamentally, consultants and consultancy are seen as an import from the world of business and commerce. Consultancy methods are, by definition, an anathema to the world of academia.

With a group of like-minded colleagues, we have been working as consultants on higher education management projects for the last eight years.  It has been interesting to meet our own sense of dread from the other side of the table.  Some projects have worked, others have not.  In all cases the defining factor has been the fundamental approach of both contractor and consultant.  So, if you're thinking of calling in consultants, or are currently working with some, here are some things to look out for.

What do you want the consultant to do? Consultancy is by definition a short-term activity geared towards a specific task.  It has clear beginning and end dates, and it is the role of both parties to clarify the details of the project, its method and the expected outcomes and measurements. This may sound basic, but our experience is that consultants are often called because institutions simply don't  know what they want to do, still less how to do it.  Therefore our first questions when meeting new institutions are usually 'Why do you need me?' and 'What can I do for you?'  Everything begins from there.

(By the way, if the answer to those two questions is 'We don't' and 'Nothing', walk away now ...)

Consultants don't know everything. The principal challenge of consultancy is to understand the institution and to draw on your knowledge and experience to develop a solution that meets the objectives of the institution in an appropriate way. That last phrase 'in an appropriate way ' is the key. Two factors often get in the way however.  The first is a sense that as consultants are being paid, then they should be left to do whatever it is they're supposed to do, while the rest of the institution gets on with the task of actually running the place.  The second is \unwillingness amongst consultants to ask for help, to engage with the details of what the institution does, how it works and its key personnel. Both factors mitigate against trust and partnership. The result is often an outcome undermined by a failure to understand the issue, the institution, its culture and people. Worse, without institution-specific expertise, consultants often fall back on identikit recommendations. These run the risk of being genuinely damaging.

What is the next step? Consultancy is excellent for identifying issues, developing potential solutions and/or the development of a particular function or expertise. However, institutions that rely on the use of consultants in the long-term, particularly the same consultants performing the same task, are not using them effectively. At the end of the project, an institution should be in a position to take the next steps without consultancy. This might mean taking a specific decision based on the recommendations provided, or implementing a new activity such as developing a suite of courses.  It might mean establishing or modifying marketing activities or quality assurance systems.  In all cases, part of the consultancy should be about developing the capacity to do so unassisted.  This often means the training and development of core staff, either by the consultants themselves or other agencies. We often say that one of our roles as  consultants is to make ourselves superfluous as soon as possible. If you still need the same consultant many years after the initial project has ended, you don't really need a consultant.  You need some staff. 

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