A letter to those leading universities for the future

Carola Boehm shares her wish list for university leaders to consider as the sector emerges from challenging times.

Carola Boehm is Professor of Arts and Higher Education at Staffordshire University.

Contemplating my thoughts on what kind of future leaders we need in our universities, ready to embark on the next phase, I sat down and wrote two things.

One was a list of books, which I hope would provide a well-rounded read for any university leader. Their authors are able to eloquently express the most relevant aspects for the future resilience of our Higher Education sectors.

The second was a letter to the future. I initially headed that with the label “manifesto” but that sounded too instructional. It is rather a wish list of rational considerations that any leader may want to ponder. Each one has such complexity that whole books are written about it but brevity was important.

A personal letter to a university future

We will hopefully understand the significance of the fact that we need a different role for our universities serving the emerging knowledge economies and knowledge societies. We cannot “own” knowledge anymore, we do not need to “curate” knowledge anymore. We should focus our efforts on the design of learning environments, where knowledge is brought in by learners from all directions, and where academics are empowered to facilitate the act of learning by flexibly shaping this environment.

I would love for us to accept that learning happens at all levels and in all directions, and that the best learning environments can facilitate this and thus foster communities of practice. This also has ramifications for our learning and quality frameworks, as well as structural environments.

We need to begin to fully understand that disciplines are nothing else than social constructs. We should attend to the supporting frameworks that allow learning communities to feel they have a place, a community, and an identity, while balancing the need to allow disciplinary boundaries to be permeable.

As an example, there is still a huge role for departmental structures to play within the universities of the future: interdisciplinarity does not exist without disciplinarity. We also need to welcome new staff entrances as much as celebrate the contributions of staff leavers. Having to let people go should never be seen as a quick solution. Celebrating each contribution should always, always be a thing.

I would love for our institutions to subscribe to the fact that learning is a ubiquitous and a lifelong process (one that includes research), and should never, ever be a short-term, transactional exchange. Our students are less our customers; they, more importantly, belong to our learning communities and communities of practice. This goes beyond a degree, and beyond our institutional boundaries to incorporate our local civic communities.

We should always be alert that “quality” and “excellence” can be used to gatekeep, even unknowingly. Design of learning environments should ideally focus on process, not product, learning objective or outcome. This will help diversity agendas greatly. Quality assurance processes must accept the necessity for agility, flexibility, and adaptability required for learning professionals to shape environments in which this kind of learning happens.

A team effort

We need to find new ways forward to lessen the democratic deficits existing in our institutions, which have created a predominantly upwards accountability. It should allow our leaders to not become isolated or detached. Balancing upward accountability with downward accountability, such as elected heads or deans, should allow us to build in more trust into the system. Our sector’s general unhappiness amongst staff has a lot to do with trust.

We need to collectively enable our leaders to advocate for the importance of the whole sector; to be able to become voices that speak up against unnecessary governmental interference, negative culture-war-politics, unicorn dreams of smaller elite university sectors, ministers’ tendencies for scapegoating, or asking universities to be the solution to all the miseries created by various failed governmental policies. This should be irrespective of which government is in power.

Every additional governmental HE policy – as for instance Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF) and Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) have shown – has the potential to result in myriad necessary extra efforts up and down various levels at each single institution, sapping the capacity of staff and taking them away from our core activities: research and teaching. Our productivity suffers, our research suffers, our teaching suffers. As a result, our society suffers. We’re also becoming the most expensive HE sector in the world. These things are connected.

I want us to be a courageous sector, led by courageous leaders who will be able to look beyond management fads. For example, I’d like for us to finally fall out of love with individual performance indicators for staff because they potentially do more damage than good. Performance and achievement does not happen in isolation or individually. It predominantly happens in teams and collectively, with different expertise and practices often in one team, including academics and professionals. This has ramifications for processes such as appraisals, performance development reviews, or peer review of teaching as well as service and unit structures. We need to balance individualism with collectivism.

We need to think “evolution” rather than “revolution”. Big quick changes are exhausting but a larger number of smaller steps, specifically if they are led or co-created with stakeholder communities, are more likely to develop those innovative cultures that are quick to implement and sustainable to maintain. We also need to consider where we can take away from the layer-cake of managerial processes, rather than top it with the tenth cherry.

So there you have it. My wish list of how to think about our universities of the future, their leaders and all of us in and around them. It’s simple, or it should be. So why does it feel that we often get it so wrong?

Six books for every future VC

  1. The Question of Morale: Managing Happiness and Unhappiness in University Life – David Watson (2009). Maidenhead: McGraw-Hill.
    … because his book is all about our communities that make up a university, and because his tenth secret (p140-141) is so important for our current times; that “to make it work, you need to have (or to create) a sense of corporate commitment that taps into both altruism and self-interest. You also need financial discipline, in order to create the necessary margins.”
  2. The Arts Dividend : Why Investment in Culture Pays – Darren Henley (2016). London: Elliott and Thompson Limited.
    … because it should never be forgotten how important the creative sectors and the creative economy are for ALL of our daily lives.
  3. Humankind: A Hopeful History – Rutger Bregman. (2020). Bloomsbury Publishing.
    … because we need to start building our Higher Education institutions on the basis of trust, rather than control.
  4. Drive : The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us – Daniel H. Pink (2011). Edinburgh: Canongate.
    … because, as Covid-19 has demonstrated, the triad of autonomy, purpose and mastery is the magic key to create resilient and flourishing university communities, able to weather our challenging times.
  5. Reinventing Organizations – Frederic Laloux (2014). Brussels: Nelson Parker.
    … because, as many other larger organisations, we in HE need to reinvent our internal structures to allow ourselves to evolve into collaboratively purposeful organisations that can hold lifelong learning, social purpose, environmental justice, as well as financial sustainability in balance.
  6. Influencing Higher Education Policy: A Professional Guide to Making an Impact – Ant Bagshaw & Debbie McVitty (eds) (2019, 1st edition). Abingdon, Oxon ; New York: Routledge.
    … because contemporary universities need to operate in the political world.

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