The psychological contract for higher education beyond Covid

Reflecting on the findings of a survey of higher education leaders, Ewart Wooldridge urges a display of the same determination shown during the Covid crisis to transform universities for the future.

Ewart Wooldridge is a consulting fellow with Halpin Partnership.

“Leadership ​out of​ a crisis is exceptionally difficult,” says Sheffield Hallam University vice chancellor Chris Husbands.

Certainly, Husbands does not intend to imply that leading in the middle of a crisis is easy. But decisions to be made in the thick of it are largely sequential and teams are generally united around the dynamics of the crisis.

When it comes to leading an organisation such as a university out of​ ​a crisis, that focused unity of purpose starts to dissipate, more issues become subject to argument, and complexity rules. We have a remarkable capacity in higher education to problematise the challenges of running our multifaceted institutions.

Though that instinct is often valuable, it cannot be allowed to dominate or stifle the process as we work together to lead universities and the sector out of the Covid crisis.

The psychological contract

The psychological contract is usually defined as the combination of reciprocal expectations in an organisation. It is especially complex in a university, involving students, staff and a myriad of external stakeholders. Covid has caused all the building blocks of that contract, sometimes referred to as the organisational “deal”, to undergo a seismic shift.

To start to plan strategies beyond Covid-19 will require a thorough analysis of how that deal has changed – how and where students learn and are supported, how and where staff work and are motivated; the impact of the digital shift; where and how decisions are made, how the culture and values have changed; and how the relationship with surrounding communities and stakeholders has taken on a new dimension. University leaders and their communities need to decide which of these changes they must retain in order to underpin their resilience over the next five to ten years.

Most dramatically the learning, social and financial dimensions of the student deal has changed, with all the consequences for physical and digital engagement, wellbeing, and mental health.

Despite the backdrop of industrial relations disputes about pivoting back to blended learning, and negative media about some student campus experiences, there are hugely positive stories about collaborative leadership and problem solving between student representatives and academic and professional services staff. But it is evident from current surveys that, despite these efforts, there is continuing student dissatisfaction, disquiet and disengagement, particularly where Covid has exacerbated inequalities.

In the area of staffing, there is really positive evidence of support for university staff to tackle fatigue, bolster resilience and well-being and underpin the transition from campus to home working. The level of participation and engagement by staff has hugely increased, partly driven by the crisis itself, partly by ease of access to online meetings. But raising an electronic hand in a Teams briefing is not the same as engaging face to face.

As we look forward, university leaders will need to decide how much it matters to continue to foster all aspects of the physical sense of community that we traditionally associate with the campus based university. The crisis has strengthened the supportive culture, but fresh thinking will be required to hold these new values together as we come out of Covid. It will not be the same formula for every university.

There is evidence of significant shifts in the style of decision making. Energised by the initial pivot to online last March, leaders generally reported a greater agility and fluidity in decision taking and the management of change. The sector must find a way of holding on to that whilst still retaining the core values of a learning community.

Revisiting the HE value proposition

Universities are already starting to revisit their strategies as they look ahead to 2025 and 2030. At the top of the agenda is recasting the student deal, delivering a new digital shift, redrawing estates plans, and underpinning financial sustainability. Some councils and senior teams will want to explore new partnerships, maybe reopening the debate about shared services, and looking at the potential for rationalisation. Mergers may come back on to the agenda.

The Covid crisis has opened up the value proposition of higher education to public scrutiny and challenge more than ever before. In the heat of the Covid crisis, the higher education sector has demonstrated a remarkable capacity to adapt, in the way it makes decisions, engages with students and staff, and reframes the learning experience. Externally it has offered outstanding civic leadership in working with community, civic and national partners in providing research, practical support and solutions to tackle the pandemic.

But the real test kicks in now. Universities must now rise to the new challenge of long term change and demonstrate an increasingly adaptive style of leadership. The profound disruption from Covid has the potential to be a catalyst for long term transformational change in the culture and infrastructure of HE institutions and for reimagining the university. Otherwise we will look back on it as a severe storm that we weathered – and then we will return to a sector landscape altered by Covid, but largely shaped and led as it was before.

How we come out of Covid may exacerbate an increasingly uneven playing field of HE, a landscape of winners and losers. Externally, governments and funders will be looking to the sector to demonstrate real evidence of a willingness and capability to deliver substantive and cultural change. Internally, institutions will be expected to pull off this change of gear whilst still holding together the sense of community and collegiality.

Strategic reassessment has to start now

The psychological contract offers a relevant framework with which to examine the dynamic of the reciprocal relationships that underpin the complex workings of the university. It provides a way of monitoring, measuring, and listening to students, staff and stakeholders as we start to glimpse the end of the Covid tunnel. Emerging out of Covid, with all the other surrounding uncertainties, provides a vital opportunity to reimagine how we work, and to challenge how we support each other and the sustainability of our institutions.

At a recent sector online event ​there was clear consensus that this fundamental reassessment has to start now (if it has not already got underway) in every university leadership team and governing council across the UK, and the outcomes must not just be changes at the margins.

This article came out of a series of in-depth interviews the author held with a substantial group of HE leaders across the UK at the end of last year. They are part of a longitudinal sector project which aims to capture the leadership lessons of the Covid story in HE.

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