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Collegiality enhances university leadership in a post-Covid world

Jonathan Baldwin, managing director of higher education at Jisc, looks at the changing role of post-Covid university leadership and the enduring need for collaboration.

 

The world is a different place today than it was six months ago, and that impacts on leadership. Saying ‘follow me’ isn’t enough. Those in the top jobs at universities know this is a time to listen, engage, think and reflect – and all those things are actually about trust.

The sector got off to a decent start. After the COVID-19 outbreak, universities responded straightforwardly and calmly. Students were able to complete their studies, do their assessments, graduate. But we're now in the thick of the new academic year. Has the sector moved on from that emergency response to delivering truly quality blended learning at scale?

The Learning and Teaching Reimagined (LTR) initiative, coordinated by Jisc, Emerge Education, Advance HE and Universities UK, brings together more than 1,000 representatives from UK universities, including a number of vice-chancellors and senior leaders, to talk about these issues and plot a path for the future.

Among the key takeaways for leaders, expressed in LTR’s flagship report, is an assertion that the future is blended. Vice-chancellors recognise that universities are academic communities that thrive when they work with their students - and evidence from students that started university this year suggests there is some love for the blended model we're moving towards. They are not waiting to go back to the way things were. Rather, there are demands for different types of delivery.

Not all learners want to live on campus for 40 weeks of the year. Many now want to consume learning materials digitally and engage in seminars and workshops digitally. They may come on to campus for set-piece activity, as well as for social engagement. Student-informed leadership behaviours are important. The new world of social media and digital learning is not going away. Forget ‘when this is over’. - that isn’t going to happen.

I think that is why LTR is so important and why it must endure, not as a project but as a long-term collaboration. The learnings are not there to sit on a shelf or dip into as a reference document - this is an ongoing debate that lives and informs the sector. Acknowledging that means accepting there is a job to do. The idea of the superhero vice chancellor has gone: leaders are addressing their own knowledge gaps, scrutinising their preferences and practice, and engaging the services of others, including Jisc, to help them find a way through.

I am optimistic about change, and I know the world is transient. A student who starts university in two years’ time might like the high-quality digital materials she’s getting. Her social life probably won’t reflect mine as a student – and I might assume she’s disappointed by that - but I can’t know unless I ask. For how long will the idea of a residential university experience seem tangible – desirable – for students? I worry we get stuck on that and tied up in that British class system that pedals the idea that you're only going to university properly if you leave home to attend a ‘top’ institution. In the UK, the university experience has been about learning to live as well as living to learn. That has value – but we have to be careful to ensure that it is students’ views that prevail.

As for staff, leaders know that trust is hard to win and easy to lose. Everybody thinks they could manage a university, and many think they could do it better than you. The way to navigate that, leaders are telling us, is to meaningfully engage colleagues in discussions. That collegiality is at the heart of universities. They were founded as self-governing communities of scholars, and while that makes decision-making slower, it makes the process of making decisions richer.

Academic freedom affords the opportunity to oppose constructively. What it should not do is offer a power of veto. So let's create a culture that listens and involves. People have got to leave the room – whether it’s a real one or a virtual one – believing they have  been heard. Then, even if the decisions made are not those they want, at least they are framed in context. Leaders can't govern from an office on the top floor with six PAs between them and their staff; we're all living the change together.

We are seeing huge shifts but universities are still what they have always been: collegiate environments that move collectively. Perhaps this isn’t about considering new ways of thinking but a renewed expression of what universities have always sought to do, with greater pace and focus. It is time to change the machinery – cut down on repetitive meetings and stop over-engineering – because we'll soon be planning for the next academic year and there isn't time to cogitate. Trust is central, but the greatest challenge for leadership at this moment may actually be one of speed.

 

Jonathan Baldwin is managing director of higher education at the education and technology not-for-profit, Jisc. The flagship report of the Learning and teaching reimagined project will launch at a webinar at 11am on 4 November.

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