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Connect Benefit Series for 2021-22: Inclusive institutions: enabling culture change

27 Jan 2022 | Kim Ansell Kim Ansell, Senior Adviser in Governance, Leadership and Management at Advance HE, introduces the second of our two six-month longitudinal projects for the Connect Benefit Series for 2021-22, launching in February and running until July 2022.

Dedication: Mark Trezona was a much loved Advance HE colleague who inspired and helped shape Advance HE’s work on this topic from its inception and still does today. 

Leaders must find ways to create or find shared understanding about culture, identity and the organisations direction of travel in a way that unites."

In the last two years’ higher education colleagues have been juxtaposed between operating in an inflexible and unpredictable climate, often in either ‘crisis mode’ or ‘survival mode’, while at the same time transforming online student learning and assessment faster than ever before. The eco system in which most higher education institutions (HEIs) exist has been, and is likely to continue to be, turbulent. Whether it is economic, political or social, we should expect the HE landscape to remain complex.

  • Governing bodies and senior leaders are currently reconciling themselves to the fact that they must become comfortable to make decisions in complex and uncertain times.

  • Professional and academic staff have to maintain and deliver on commitments to students whilst being innovative and flexible enough to shape a different future.

  • Students’ expectations are continually changing, not just about the type of education that they receive, but also about the role they want in this eco system.

The success of education providers in transitioning online has depended in part, on their starting point; those who had already established a strategic intent, supported by investment in people, technology and place (for example, staff and student digital literacy, infrastructure and socialisation of the benefits, barriers and challenges) most likely found themselves in a strong position to transition more quickly. This demonstrated the benefits of forward-looking and ongoing holistic strategies with consistent and joined up implementation over time.

The culture of the institution was also a key factor in enabling the innovation and flexibility required by those responsible for creating and delivering student success. Those institutions whose vision and culture has inclusivity and wellbeing embedded as a core value and have the trust of all stakeholders from student to board were well positioned to face the challenges of the pandemic without compromising staff and student wellbeing.

It is well reported that the pandemic has exposed disparities amongst staff and students who faced particular barriers to teaching and learning. These ranged from mental health and/or disability issues, to highlighting accessibility, digital poverty and bringing inclusive practices to the fore. 

So how can institutions enable a direction of travel which unites everyone and which is the responsibility of everyone from student to board? Furthermore, what can we learn from the pandemic about inclusive institutions enabling and supporting culture, in order to keep the best and ditch the rest?

In a recent report Deloitte suggests that,

“Without a broader vision of social change, new technologies will only serve to reinforce existing institutional goals and forms of social inequity. Many prior attempts to mobilize technology in the service of educational reform have failed because interventions have focused narrowly on the deployment of particular media or technologies, without considering broader social, political, or economic conditions.”

A previous HEA Flexible pedagogies report noted:

“Framing flexibility as fundamental to HE learning dynamics recognises that both educators and graduates need flexibility at several levels to address societal, economic and environmental issues in an increasingly globalised world…”

The 2020 Transforming Organisations from student to board report proposes that:

“To transform organisations for the better, we must give people the opportunity to change the way they think and interact. This cannot be done through increased training or through command-and-control approaches: no one person, including a highly charismatic leader, can command other people to change their attitudes, beliefs, perceptions or level of commitment. Instead, the practice of transforming organisations involves developing tangible activities: new governing ideas, innovations in infrastructure, and new leadership methods and tools for changing the ways people work together. Given the opportunity to take part in these activities people will develop an enduring capability for change and the organisation will benefit from far greater levels of inclusion, commitment, innovation and diverse talent.”

The implications for those involved in transforming HE, whether working at strategic level to deliver vision and mission or directly involved in developing and delivering teaching and learning to improve student outcomes are broad, deep and very exciting as we emerge from the pandemic. To realise full potential, institutions need to:

  • consider all stakeholders addressing issues of agency and wellbeing – both learner agency, but also the agency needed by the teacher to experiment safely, understand their boundaries and enable the institution to thrive.  Empowering the learning process and fostering adaptability will be at the heart of student success
  • challenge the organisations strategic mind set – moving away from micro decisions innovative teaching and learning, to a joined up and inclusive approach to creating the right conditions for flexible and innovative teaching and learning.

The systems, cultures and practices of HEIs are complex and creating an enabling and inclusive culture with a range of joined up levers and channels for change should enable planned and emergent change to be more successful for everyone.

In this theme from February to July 2022, I propose to:

1        explore the organisational conditions required to enable flexible learning to thrive.

THE noted in their Asia conference that, at Chiang Mai University in Thailand, incentives for academic staff are increasingly built around how they embrace new teaching methods and equip students with the knowledge to deal with disruptive technologies. 

But creating the right culture to enable innovation in teaching and learning from flexible learning, curriculum design and assessment, and staff and student belonging, reaches across the organisation, from strategic direction, allocation of resources, decision making, employability and civic engagement. All of which much speak to the values, mission and vision  

2        investigate the governing body’s role and responsibility in embedding wellbeing into the organisations strategy and how that can positively impact the culture and belonging across the institution.

Advance HE invites governors and senior executive teams involved in strategy to join us for a ‘virtual sandpit event’ on Thursday 5 May, 8.30am-10am (BST). The event will offer an opportunity for senior leaders to discuss how organisational wellbeing should be positioned in overall university strategy and will explore the key question, ‘Have we managed to create healthier and more compassionate universities as a result of the pandemic and has that had a positive impact on an inclusive and enabling culture?’

3        understand more about what works in a range of techniques and/or approaches and lessons learned from members’ current work to transform, enable and support an inclusive culture, ways of working, or delivery of key strategic aims.

Through our Collaborative Development Fund projects for 2022 we will offer a portfolio of outputs including interactive case studies for members and a Capstone report summarising some of their reflections and insights.

Kim is a Senior Adviser in Governance, Leadership and Management for Advance HE. She has worked in higher and professional education for 40 years and since joining Advance HE (formerly the Leadership Foundation in HE) in 2017 she has supported a range of institutions, communities and individual academic and professional services staff through a variety of interventions.

This Connect Benefit Series project Inclusive institutions: enabling culture change runs from February to July with outputs including a podcast, sandpit event and capstone report. Find out more here.

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