Gate One with UCAS

The Universities and Colleges Admissions Services, or UCAS, is the charity responsible for university admissions in the UK. More than that, it is a Great British institution. People turn to it for help at one of the most exciting points in their lives. In 2001, a young James Cooper used UCAS to find and gain admission to the right undergraduate course for him, digital business and e-commerce at Nottingham University. 17 years later, it was UCAS that found itself at a moment of transition, and James was able to return the favour by leading Gate One’s overhaul of the charity’s corporate strategy.

The story of how we guided UCAS to a refreshed strategy is a case study in how a corporate strategy can galvanise an organisation. A good strategy depends on a clear idea of what you want to achieve, a realistic appraisal of your starting point, and a viable plan for bridging the gap. UCAS began the process struggling to define any of these things with sufficient clarity. It had a captive market for university admissions services, but no single, agreed vision for how to navigate a rapidly changing higher education sector. And it had almost lost count of the number of peripheral activities and special projects occupying its staff’s time.

James led a team working closely and interactively with the CEO and senior management team to identify the core purpose of the organisation, crafting a new strategy with buy-in from its staff. The strategy defines not so much a destination as a direction of travel, orienting UCAS towards more proactive change in the years to come. Everyone in the organisation has been re-energised. They have a shared vision of putting UCAS at the heart of connecting people to higher education, and an understanding that its core purpose is to provide an accessible and trusted undergraduate admissions service.

In more concrete terms, Gate One helped UCAS to settle on six clearly-defined strategic objectives, and did so in a cost-effective, collaborative manner. The new strategy was signed off and fully endorsed by the executive and a Board of Directors that had begun the process sceptical and risk averse. The executive team is now performing at a high level, and not only fully aligned on strategy, but also benefiting from a new sense of empowerment, and a focus on a set of prioritised initiatives.

UCAS now has a clarity of focus that has allowed decision makers to take immediate action in key areas. In the words of UCAS CEO Clare Marchant, “James and his team not only brought fresh perspective to our organisation, but helped us to understand our core purpose with a new clarity, making it that much easier to identify and focus on our key strategic objectives. Perhaps most impressive is how they partnered with us to bring out the best in our senior team, challenging our thinking while ensuring the end product is genuinely owned and bought into by our leaders, customers, stakeholders and staff.”

View the Gate One company profile in the MCA Members Directory.