For the emerging transition, the sector has lots to learn from SU leadership

Over the past few weeks, the higher education sector – and the student experience with it – has undergone a significant, if not the most dramatic, change it has ever seen.

For much of the period, I along with millions of other students have been yearning for things to “get back” to normal. But it’s becoming clear that there will be no return to “normal” or “business as usual” – and that in fact we now have to cope both with an uncertain and challenging “transition period”, and a path towards a “new normal” – whatever that looks like.

As we move from crisis mode to transition mode, to help us get there we are going to need some leadership. But those quietly planning a Zoom based town-hall meeting to announce a programme of cuts should think again.

Active listening

The first thing we’re going to have to do is listen to students. And I mean really listen – not just to their aggregated scores on a satisfaction questionnaire, but to their concerns and the realities of their lives. During the crisis I’ve heard too many stories from other SU officers about the surprise expressed by senior staff that students might not have broadband at home, might have signed a contract for 2020-21 accommodation that costs more than their loan, or might have caring responsibilities during school closures that make taking any exams – online or not – impossible.

We have to make sure that student parents, carers and mature students get support for the transition and the long term. We need to see access and participation plan activity adjusted radically. We need to remember that delivering an “adequate” course online means that WP students will miss out massively on cultural capital building and work experience opportunities. We need to make sure that bereaved students and staff get the appropriate counselling and considerations needed into September and beyond. We need to bank, not consider temporary, the progress on access that the “online pivot” represents – and fix the problems it has created. The mantra must be – we’ll only do this if we can guarantee access. Not “we’re doing this – can you go away and think about access”.

We’ll have to listen really carefully to students when we ask them for feedback on our plans to “re-open”. Better still, we should involve students in the decisions about when and how to reopen. Too many people this week have suggested we can just switch in-person teaching on halfway through the autumn term without thinking through what that means for students. Even when “in-person” returns, we’ll probably need institutional interpretations of social distancing guidelines. Balancing freedom and safety will be tough – and we’ll need student involvement in those calls.

Most importantly, we shouldn’t consider that doing everything online for most of next year is in any way adequate for almost all students. It doesn’t matter whether you look at it from a consumer law perspective, a moral perspective or a student experience perspective – for most students, it’s just not good enough, and for those needing labs or placements or years abroad, it’s unacceptable. This might be the price that some students have to pay for now – at least temporarily. But let’s not deploy the tin ear over their disappointment, lest it turns into anger.

Leadership needs to look different

All of that listening points to the wider issue of the nature and character of leadership in our universities. Crisis meetings are all very well, but they cannot be the norm of this transition period. The leadership we need now is different – more transparent, more accountable and more pragmatic and flexible.

This means there needs to be a partnership model with students and staff, and where both academic and corporate governance structures become mechanisms that incorporate listening rather than imposing. We can’t keep reacting to issues – students need and want proactivity right now.

It also means redefining expertise. The cleverest people in universities right now aren’t the ones that can copy out a paragraph from an OfS letter, the ones that can “sell” an online course to students or the ones that can propose cuts to courses. The clever ones are everywhere, staff and students in every department who will take some responsibility as long as they – in the form of their fees, their labour or their safety – aren’t taken for granted.

There’s a big danger that doing the old “big man stands at the front and burn things” kind of leadership is seen somehow as heroic or brave. Neither would be true for what comes next. Heroic and brave won’t mean self-survival but acting in the public interest; knowing when to set aside the concerns of regulators or metric counters, and being honest with everyone when you know that what you’re doing isn’t really good enough.

The impossible exists

If that kind of public, compassionate, honest, empathetic, directly accountable leadership sounds difficult, I have good news from you. Student officers all over the country have also felt how unusual the past few weeks have been, but if anything, we’ve all jumped in and got on with it like it’s our second nature.

We know what it’s like to face scrutiny from what feels like a million places – twitter, Facebook, students, the media and the government. We know what it’s like to see situations moving faster than we keep up with and feel the heat to find a resolution. We know how hard it is to balance competing interests and sound authentic and find time to eat. Now’s the time to set egos aside and ask us how we’ve done it.

We can and will get through this – but only as a community.

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3 responses to “For the emerging transition, the sector has lots to learn from SU leadership

  1. Thank you, this is a great contribution to everyone’s thinking right now. Listening, compassion and transparency have to be the hallmarks of great leadership throughout this situation and beyond. I’ve personally learned such a lot from students’ unions over the years and hope to continue doing so. Please do keep on writing and sharing your thoughts.

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