Re-imagining and re-visioning are the new buzz words currently crossing the lips of many a vice-chancellor and senior executive team member in universities up and down the land.
‘Never let a good crisis go to waste’ goes the Churchillian adage and there is no doubt that the majority of us privileged to be in leadership positions within the higher education sector are indeed keen to ensure that somehow what comes “after” is much, much better than what came before.
An uncertain world
Nowhere is this more important than in the quality of the student experience and especially of the learning opportunities we provide from this coming autumn. We know that work done over recent months has represented a modestly successful “online pivot”, but now we need to be ambitious for our learning communities and really raise our game in the provision of engaging, accessible and flexible learning opportunities. Not only do such opportunities need to be seen as good value, but we will also need to able to turn differing modes of teaching delivery on and off dependent on the changing status of Covid-19 and its impact upon individuals and communities.
For any university to be successful in making the leap from emergency, remote teaching to a fully flexible and accessible learning blend I would suggest that two things must be in place. In my view, both are intrinsically linked to organisational culture:
- A university-wide framework of principles that guide decision making and that is fully understood and endorsed by staff and students;
- A fully distributed leadership and management approach that works across departmental and role boundaries and focuses instead on the skills and knowledge needed rather than position or job title.
Starting from first principles
Firstly, the framework of principles. Jim Dickinson wrote a welcome article on this back in April, and of course it goes without saying that the health and wellbeing of students and staff has to be paramount and top priority. No one argues with that. But what else should be in your principles framework?
Well, for any university that genuinely tried to live its values and embody them in all aspects of corporate decision making pre-Covid 19, then the idea of developing an agreed framework of guiding principles will not be difficult at all – simply use your values to inform your decision making. At my institution we have developed a framework of challenge questions that come directly from our values of being accessible, supportive, innovative and ambitious. At all stages of decision making in relation to re-imagining campus operations, learning and working patterns and academic delivery from September we ‘test’ against our values. And because our values framework was already embedded and understood across all elements of university life, the guiding principles have been welcomed and understood.
On the other hand, for a university which has perhaps paid only lip service to its values, where a values-based approach has not been culturally embedded…well it may prove problematic to achieve buy-in from staff and students for any type of guiding principles framework. That in turn may create problems of disconnect, inefficiency and inconsistency in the ways in which decisions are made, leading to staff and student dissatisfaction.
If your values-based decision making framework is in place, then the next step is of course to get on with re-imagining the future, be it short, medium or long term considerations. This demands creative thinking and agile problem solving, coupled with hopeful optimism and tempered by a significant amount of realistic pragmatism. There is nothing linear about the challenges we face either; problem solving conversations are iterative and often feel quite messy – thinking it all through is hard work. There may be a roadmap, but there is no doubt that the road will contain some hidden potholes and dead ends along the way.
Therefore, this is not the time for slavish adherence to unwieldy decision making driven by hierarchical committees and management structures. Rather this is the time for truly distributed approaches to come into their own, where specific skills, knowledge and insight are valued above position or role in the organisational structure. Those of us working within smaller organisations perhaps find this an easier approach than elsewhere; indeed at Wrexham Glyndŵr we don’t have multiple management layers to negotiate and we already champion a flexible, distributed approach to many aspects of work across the university.
Distributed academic development
For example, as universities scramble to re-imagine curriculum delivery, then educational and staff development work will become incredibly important over the coming weeks and months. At Wrexham Glyndŵr we don’t have a central development unit, but a distributed network of academic development associates from across both professional services and academic faculties who work ‘cross-systems’ on integrated development projects alongside their day jobs.
This culturally-embedded approach has meant that, as we have brought together new working groups in response to Covid-19 we have done this not necessarily by way of position within the organisation but on a needs basis related to skills and knowledge. Because we had already operated in a distributed way (alongside our formal structures) this has not been an unfamiliar way of working for the majority of colleagues (including student representatives of course). For example, I do not believe there have been problems around power dynamics as the expectation is that all contribute regardless of job title or grade. All are expected to bring ideas to the table and all ideas are considered on their own merits, regardless of the originator.
The new culture?
I wonder if the current crisis will shine a light on the nature of organisational culture across higher education? I wonder if organisational culture will be one factor that influences who emerges relatively unscathed from this challenging episode and which organisations struggle?
I’m very happy to be building on an organisational culture that is firmly rooted in our values and that we have worked hard to develop in recent years. We have tried to create spaces within which ideas can be developed free from the constraints of more formal organisational structures and we embrace the ideas that come from more distributed approaches to leadership. In the light of the current crisis our culture has stood us in good stead and we have a good chance of emerging stronger and more effective for it.