Making peace with uncertainty in 2022

Normal service won't be resuming any time soon. Debbie McVitty argues that in 2022 embracing ambiguity could be more effective than hoping for the illusion of clarity

Debbie is Editor of Wonkhe

Universities are institutions that crave stability – like knowing where the funding is coming from, what sort of students will show up year on year, and what subjects they will be taught, the more years in advance, the better.

Where there is uncertainty baked into universities’ DNA – say, in the production of new knowledge through research – it’s managed and contained through things like well-defined funding application processes, approved methodological approaches, and peer review systems.

And where the risk of deep uncertainty threatens, universities do what they can to restore order. Memorably, in the summer of 2020 when nobody knew what the applicant or university recruitment response would be to the pandemic, universities took collective steps to impose predictability through temporary student number controls, even in some cases at the expense of their own individual interests.

A week is a long time

In politics, by contrast, there is no stability, and no predictability of what’s about to happen. Over Christmas I read a biography of former head of the civil service Jeremy Heywood, What does Jeremy think? Which, in addition to being a fascinating insight into the ways of working of four successive Prime Ministers, effectively rams home the point that in politics whatever you think the policy priority or long term plan is always bound to be knocked off course by some crisis or other that requires immediate action and sucks up all the available bandwidth.

Heywood appears to have spent the best part of his long civil service career patiently pulling various high profile actors into rooms and forcing them to find a palatable compromise between their various apparently irreconcilable positions in order to break a series of policy logjams that threatened to derail the government of the day. And whatever the colour of the government rolling from crisis to crisis is very much a common theme. You can attribute this to the failures of politicians or democratic process but to some extent I think this instability is just what happens when you have large and complex systems and organisations.

The Covid-19 pandemic has, of course, has created a particularly chaotic context to policymaking over the last few years. Universities are now awaiting clarity from the Westminster government over a host of issues – student fees and finance, the admissions system, the long term funding settlement for research, and the much-hyped but now apparently logjammed legislation on regulation of freedom of speech – many of which have been up in the air for several years.

It goes without saying this lack of clarity about what the future holds is deeply frustrating, and has real consequences for universities – not least on their capacity to assess risk, make plans and, potentially, borrow against future projected income to fund capital investments.

The downside of stability

But stability can be a problem too. With stability comes a bias towards the status quo, whether or not it’s fit for purpose, and a greater likelihood of groupthink. And while I think it still constitutes a policy failure for government to publish an independent review in 209 and still have not decided what to do about it in 2022, as is now the case with the Augar review, there might also be value to be found in uncertainty.

When things are uncertain, it becomes necessary to ask more searching questions about the various things that might happen – and in doing so gain an insight into the way things work and how they might work differently or better – like the many teaching and learning innovations that arose from the uncertain environment of online and hybrid learning. Uncertainty also means learning to deal with unexpected consequences – like student over-recruitment – a nice problem to have certainly, but also one that requires serious creative thinking to ensure students get what they’ve been offered in an acceptable way.

Even if the Westminster government were to publish its plans for the “HE settlement” tomorrow, politics would remain volatile – suggesting that the illusion of certainty may be more dangerous than confronting the reality of ambiguity. Even where the policy environment appears predictable, things may change unexpectedly, as they did before Christmas when the Secretary of State and universities minister announced an updated approach to access and participation in England, causing much sweated-over five year access and participation plans to be consigned to the scrapheap.

And even if policymakers were solemnly to commit with a straight face to not changing the system for at least five years, there’s an awful lot else that will keep changing – professional practice and industry knowledge, student expectations, and technological capability. Insert your own PESTLE analysis here, with the heavily starred caveat that whatever you correctly predict at the macro level, you’re still probably wrong about the detail.

So rather than trying to preserve the illusion of stability and predictability, it might be easier all round if everyone in the sector lowered their expectations. Rather than hoping that 2022 might be the year when the light of clarity is cast on the sector, and blaming government, or university leadership, for the lack of predictability, universities could work on being better at accommodating uncertainty – and the vulnerabilities and risk of failure that come alongside it.

Everyone is muddling through, from the Prime Minister downwards. Rather than insisting that everything is in hand and under control, and normal service will be resumed shortly, sometimes the right thing to do could be to admit that nobody has a total grasp of what is happening, and all we can do is keep exchanging information and ideas in hopes of shaping the general trajectory that change should take and finding workable ways forward. Maybe, as another piece of popular culture I consumed over the Christmas season – Frozen II – taught me, finding the “next right thing” has to be enough, for now.

3 responses to “Making peace with uncertainty in 2022

  1. We’re all in a VUCA world (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity), and need to approach it accordingly.

  2. I salute you for this nuanced, mature elaboration. Naively seeking to maintain the illusion of stability and predictability is unproductive and can lead, among other things, -as you say- to a status quo bias. A more highly evolved approach for leaders and those like me who coach and mentor them is to accept uncertainty and ambiguity and learn effective ways of continually exchanging ideas (without yelling or attacking at each other) and shaping general trajectory. This is as true here in the US where I now work as it is in the UK. Thank you for this article.

  3. There’s an interesting conundrum for those on governing bodies here too. They often want the certainty of a detailed plan for that institution coupled with measurable success comparable to others. Both are problematic for the reasons you describe. The better boards certainly grasp the notions of VUCA or “the next right thing” but still struggle to escape wanting to plan & manage risk as if there were certainty. Or expect their Execs to always have all the answers. That might also be true of the regulator. Loads to think about, thanks.

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