Skip to content
The UK's only independent think tank devoted to higher education.

Focusing on people – transforming lives at scale

  • 15 February 2023
  • By Professor Paul LeBlanc
  • Welcome to the new series of the NCEE / HEPI leadership blogs.
  • Launching the new series is Professor Paul LeBlanc, President of Southern New Hampshire University (one of the largest universities in the United States), who has been described by Forbes Magazine as one of the ‘most influential people in higher education’.

Many have written about the change at Southern New Hampshire University over the last 20 years, and the rapid expansion of our online provision. Often cited is our use of technology, which allows us to offer highly personalised support. The 75 people in our data analytics team measure everything: from how many minutes it takes to respond to an inquiry (target time: eight minutes; current time: three and a half minutes) to the efficacy of content. For example, if we see that students have a drop in performance in week five, we then ask ‘is the sequence wrong?’ or ‘do we have to structure this course differently?’

The data are powerful, but it is the support provided by our academic advisers that translates them into meaningful impact. They are life coaches, spending 20 per cent of their time on academic issues, but 80 per cent on non-academic matters and the welfare of students. A typical conversation might be, ‘I understand work has been busy and you have fallen behind – have you been using our tutoring services? Let me connect you.’ Or we can offer help when a student throws their hands up, and says ‘I don’t know what I was thinking – I’ve got three kids, I’m not sleeping, I don’t have any breathing space!’

We seek to understand and prioritise the most important human interactions, and automate everything else. We want to offer a personalised human-centric experience for our individual learners at scale, and at the centre of this is the academic adviser role. As our students move through academic programmes, they will move from course to course and from instructor to instructor, but their adviser will be by their side throughout the journey.  The experience of online learners in particular can be isolating – they are not talking to friends in class, or grabbing a coffee with them afterwards. The academic adviser is in touch with you and helps you feel connected and supported.

When writing Broken: How Our Social Systems are Failing Us and How We Can Fix Them, I became obsessed with the question of why our systems of care, such as higher education and healthcare, so often dehumanise those they are meant to serve. Higher education is often guilty of this from the start, from the process of getting into university and gaining financial support, putting enormous pressure on students. The fundamental message in transformative systems of care is that they will transform lives and empower people. You can only do transformative work at scale if human relationships are at the heart. Transformative relationships are critical to success. In scaled systems of care, for the sake of efficiency and cost savings, we put people in neat boxes and drive out human interaction.  Southern New Hampshire University flips the script. We hold sacred the space of human relationships and then automate the rest, keeping people at the heart of the work. We need to make sure students feel like they matter to us. 

Yet even for us, systems demand time away from the people whom we serve. I constantly ask advisers how much of their day is spent directly working with students, and how much is spent satisfying systems (entering data, filling in forms, going to meetings). The single most important thing our advisers do is to support students, so we are now very focussed on cleaning up bureaucracy. 

At the same time, we can scale by replacing human interactions with automation when that interaction is for the system more than the learner. We have people answering the phone to address simple administrative questions – ‘what is my bill?’  We are moving to chatbots for these transactional questions, and we then use the resources freed up by technology to reduce adviser caseloads. Sometimes, however, students ask about their bill but are seeking a broader conversation about financial security, for example. This will escalate and one of our advisers will take over.   

In higher education, we need to ask ourselves ‘where is the money flowing and what does it pay for?’ From a leadership perspective, it is bucking the long-held mindset that says at scale we are willing to accept efficiency but not outcomes. In the US, for example, 50 per cent of students who start higher education fail, and 40 million people are in debt from college. As leaders we have to be much less certain, and ask more questions. We are in the middle of an enormous sea-change and we need to place human relationships at the centre.

The full list of contributions to the previous NCEE / HEPI blog series on leadership is below:

  1. Professor Mary Stuart CBE, ‘Permeable Leadership: The route to innovation in university practice’, 22 September 2022
  2. Kevin Kerrigan, ‘Entrepreneurship as a driver of civic value in universities’, 29 September 2022
  3. Ian Dunn, ‘Between tradition and regulation: is there space for entrepreneurial behaviour in higher education?’, 6 October 2022
  4. Lesley Dobree, ‘Leadership and Learning are Indispensable to Each Other’, 13 October 2022
  5. James Ransom, ‘The evolving roles and constant challenges for a higher education leader’, 20 October 2022
  6. Adam Shore, ‘Learning from failure in higher education institutions’, 27 October 2022
  7. Martin Betts, Ian Dunn and Ceri Nursaw, ‘How does a modern university seek purpose?’, 3 November 2022
  8. Ceri Nursaw, ‘Leadership in higher education: It should be all about the people’, 10 November 2022
  9. Pauline Miller Judd, ‘Entrepreneurial Thinking and Wellbeing’, 17 November 2022
  10. Sara Spear, ‘Leadership for Belonging in Higher Education’, 24 November 2022
  11. Ken Sloan, ‘What has being enterprising got to do with equality, diversity and inclusion?’, 1 December 2022
  12. Ceri Nursaw, Reflections on leadership in higher education – a blog series, 8 December 2022

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *