Stakeholder Engagement in the Education Sector

Ross Hamilton
Although the primary focus of the education sector is its students, and the main component is teaching, there is increased recognition among institutions that they must do more than simply educate.

Within construction, a building now needs to provide a full, holistic experience far beyond the teacher/student dynamic. Academic institutions are cultivating innovation, contributing to the success of their regions and shaping the economic future of the country; and with this comes vested interest from a much wider pool of people.

If we think in business terms, these people are the ‘customers’ and institutions are gradually acknowledging what businesses have known for a long time: customer satisfaction matters.

Identifying Stakeholders

Thinking more expansively about stakeholders in the education sector, beyond the obvious user groups, is easier said than done. A stakeholder is anyone who has an interest in the institution, and as schools, colleges and universities are at the heart of communities, interest is varied and vast.

A stakeholder is anyone who has an interest in the institution, and as schools, colleges and universities are at the heart of communities, interest is varied and vast.

Internal stakeholders of students, faculty, administrators and estates support groups add to a list of external stakeholders including alumni, statutory authorities, local and national government bodies, local and regional communities, local businesses, committees and elected officials. In construction specifically, this list spans even further as project boards/steering groups, project partners and planning authorities become involved.

Therefore, due to the extensive nature of stakeholder identification within the education sector, which sits in a fiercely competitive marketplace where reputation and institution allegiance matters, it is vital that an engagement strategy is central to project delivery.

Prioritising Stakeholders

Prioritising stakeholders is about assessing interest against influence. Those with the least interest and least influence may be worth cultivating prospectively but need not have a mainstream role in the decision-making of a project. For example, parents have a great interest in the education of their child, but little influence on the institution itself.

Those with the least interest and least influence may be worth cultivating prospectively but need not have a mainstream role in the decision-making of a project.

In contrast, their child (the student) has both a high interest and influence on a project; it not only directly affects their immediate academic needs and future career opportunities, but it also helps them to decide whether or not they even study at a particular institution.

This method of interest versus influence helps to prioritise stakeholders and the importance given to communication and engagement during project delivery.

Understanding Stakeholders

Each stakeholder has different pressures, influences, behaviours and challenges that can affect various parts of a project, or a scheme as a whole. Not having the finger on the pulse may lead to (costly) surprises.

Understanding the ‘what’ helps you to know how and when stakeholders need to be communicated to. Being in active dialogue with them helps to anticipate any issues on a project and, the earlier you can do this the better. Stakeholders can bring an issue to the table that you may not have thought of. Looking at a new build academic building as an example, getting the security team involved in the design consultations at an early stage can provide a completely different perspective to the space planning and access strategy for the building and can help to mitigate design risks before they arise. Well-structured consideration of expanded interests leads to better planning.

Assessing the impact of issues raised, looking at alternatives, accommodating changes where necessary and fully communicating those decisions are essential to stakeholder engagement.

This does, however, come with conflicting and testing challenges. With such a diverse array of stakeholders, it can be difficult to manage expectations. Assessing the impact of issues raised, looking at alternatives, accommodating changes where necessary and fully communicating those decisions are essential to stakeholder engagement. Compromise is needed, with a keen eye on the original client objective.

Faithful+Gould have adopted a structured and tailored approach to stakeholder engagement on a number of education projects, including the Data Technology Institute (DTI) project for The University of Edinburgh. The DTI project comprises a 9,200 square metre (sqm) high-quality building located in the central area of the University’s campus in the city centre. As such, a large number of internal and external stakeholders were consulted from an early design stage with very clear and signposted gateways for further consultations and workshops as the design developed. These structured and managed sessions allowed for full consultation between the project team and a variety of stakeholders, thus allowing the design to be developed in cognisance of issues raised by key stakeholders.

In summary, acknowledging the multiple stakeholders, ensuring inclusivity, compromising and communicating with them (through activities such as public consultation events, face-to-face meetings, letter drops and presentations) can help to foster positive relationships and opinion, and ultimately, lead to successful project delivery.

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