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How the Pandemic Will Shape University Leaders and Their Institutions

  • 28 February 2022
  • By James Ransom

This blog was contributed by James Ransom, Head of Research at NCEE and a doctoral candidate at UCL Institute of Education.

In a new report on entrepreneurial leadership, to be released on 15 March 2022 by the National Centre for Entrepreneurship in Education (NCEE), one survey respondent stated:

Some just want the apparently easy return to life as it was pre-pandemic, but life is not going to be like that. It’s better to make change than to have it done to you.

In 2021, we surveyed 41 senior leaders from 25 universities on the future of leadership. Leaders are prioritising the management of change and complexity, but they also report that these focuses pre-date COVID-19. The balancing act between dealing with challenges and exploiting opportunities is clear from these four different responses:

I think there is a challenge that our planning horizon has shortened (we have been reacting to stuff and making short-term decisions) and we will need to push this back over the coming months, which will be difficult.

There’s a time lag problem, and we have old tools to tackle new problems. The human capacity to absorb the genuinely new is slower than the disruptive capacity of the context.

I sense there are more opportunities than people realise to seek advantage as a university in a very competitive environment.

There’s a significant increase in opportunities around innovation, particularly in areas of social value and cohesion, for those able to respond at pace.

The report explores the data in detail. Several findings stand out. Leaders found predicting long-term developments and maintaining team capacity to be the top challenges during the pandemic. Motivating staff, however, proved to be less of an issue, as leaders reported staff willingness to do things differently and adapt to new circumstances. Perhaps it is not surprising that, given the efforts of staff in the face of widespread disruption, staff wellbeing tops the list of priority activities for higher education leaders over the next couple of years, together with navigating financial uncertainty.

All respondents felt a need for significant change in at least one area of their university’s activity over the next 18 months. More than 80 per cent of leaders reported that their institution will need significant changes or a complete overhaul to adapt to financial pressures, and to changing modes of teaching. Despite this, 85 per cent of leaders were confident in the ability of their institutions to adapt to change and competition over the next few years (80 per cent reported the same in 2019).

Much has been written about a decade’s worth of change taking place in 18 months, especially around the use of digital technologies and the role of estates in student experience and teaching, and the structures and routines of staff working. Leaders reported the acceleration of previously identified changes as the biggest opportunity from the pandemic (64 per cent), helped by the flexibility and open-mindedness of staff (52 per cent). Changes identified included forging entrepreneurial opportunities with new and existing partners. A lower ranking for rethinking university structures (20 per cent) compared to implementing changes already in the pipeline suggests many of the developments taking place in universities were likely to have taken place in some form anyway – albeit at a slower pace.

Managing the implications of external changes was the top institutional priority for leaders, followed by ensuring financial stability. Managing internal changes was a distant third. This suggests universities are now more focused on dealing with broader circumstances than driving their own strategy.

Leaders report that staff have adapted well to the disruption of COVID-19. However, we need a period of policy stability for universities to look inwards, and to understand and address not only the changes that have been wrought by the pandemic, but also what the continual policy change within and beyond higher education has meant for their institutions. As HEPI’s Director, Nick Hillman, noted in 2020, COVID is not the only big change affecting higher education, and this remains true today. An ‘easy return to life as it was’ is about the only item not on the agenda for higher education leaders in 2022.

To find out more about the NCEE survey, join NCEE’s leadership webinar on 15 March 2022. The webinar will run from 12 noon to 1pm, and will be hosted by Ian Dunn, Chair of NCEE and Provost at Coventry University.

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