Negotiation is now seen as a core competency in business, and is just as important in the running of the modern university. A key part of university mangers’ business is to respond to the needs of a wide range of stakeholders – from staff, students, parents, external partners, the local and regional community, schools, unions, and policy makers – and all while upholding the University’s mission and driving its key priorities. Negotiation skills lie at the heart of this. Below I discuss a few ways in which negotiation might be embedded as part of the operational framework, creating shared competencies to guide individual behaviour and that underpin the university’s long-term sustainability.
There are of course a number of key skills that underpin effective negotiation, including preparation, building rapport, active listening, problem solving, having excellent communication skills, and acting in accordance with commonly recognised ethical standards in order to build trust. Underpinning all these is an understanding that negotiation is not a zero-sum game, even in the competitive market environments in which universities now operate. Look upon negotiation not as a compromise, in which you give up something, but as an opportunity to learn more about your partners’ priorities and operational parameters.
The importance of negotiation to universities
While many universities retain their traditional hierarchical structures internally, nowadays their relationships with a wide range of stakeholders are more open to negotiation, and in some cases, more contested, thanks to radical changes to the HE marketplace in the last few decades because of marketisation, globalisation, and the growth of social media. For example, the university-student relationship has been transformed from a top-down, vertical model in which the university dispenses authority to the student body, to a relationship that is far more negotiated. Students now have far more opportunities than in the past to negotiate their learning experience, thanks to the rise of the NSS and the increase in student fees. This has meant that universities are now obliged to engage with the demands of the student body over matters ranging from assessment practices, facilities provision, employability training, and, in recent years, freedom of speech, in order to enhance student perception of ownership of their degrees.
Despite these changes, universities remain powerful institutions, creating employers, driving growth nationally, and representing the UK’s soft power internationally. Across the board negotiation skills can be used by universities and researchers to demonstrate their value to a wide range of stakeholders. With increasing uncertainty in the run-up to Brexit, and with the potential reconfiguration of a wide range of external relationships in the EU, UK universities will need to sharpen their negotiation skills to continue to make the case about the global significance of the sector. Negotiation skills can also enable universities to build value perception among all stakeholders – the continuing participation of young people in the student experience, for instance, depends on universities making a continued and sustained case to employers as well as parents and students about their value and importance. In sum, universities now need to negotiate boundaries of practice and engagement across the board, with unions leaders, community groups, business partners, and, importantly, with government.
Negotiation, public policy, and the impact agenda
A rapidly developing aspect of the impact and knowledge exchange agenda is the area of policy exchange, as one of the more readily measurable ways in which research impact may be measured. University researchers are now encouraged to develop research that is of interest to government and to other public bodies engaged in policy making. Researchers and other university staff may find themselves across tables from civil servants and politicians, having to make persuasive cases for their research to be taken into account in the development of public policy. Training in negotiation skills can help university researchers promote their research to policy makers; more generally, advanced negotiation skills can also help managers and senior university staff make a robust and convincing case for the sector in general.
Staff across the university can be trained in negotiation via leadership and management courses, while for students, negotiation skills should be understood as a core skill to be passed on to students as part of the employability and professionalisation agenda.