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What matters in the great readjustment ahead? Opinion

Despite the further uncertainty arising this week from the latest Omicron variant, there is still some prospect of domestic and international students returning to Australian campuses in 2022, allowing us, to some extent, to catch up with other parts of the world. Together with the likelihood of more staff being on our campuses, rethinking how we work, research and teach and deliver student experience are top priorities for university leadership, staff and students globally.

The pandemic has forced upon us all a re-evaluation of what ‘is’ the workplace and what ‘is’ home. It has changed the relationship between an employer and employee in this changed university context. It has also caused us to revisit what roles we play and how we deliver a multi-dimensional student experience, which for many decades has assumed close physical in-person interaction. There is no doubt that COVID has metaphorically shaken our kaleidoscope hard and the full picture is not yet clear. 

What we do know is that the pandemic has already been a watershed moment, accelerating the availability and use by universities of online technologies such as virtual learning environments and learning analytics. In general, it has already increased their level of acceptance by students and staff alike. It has also posed challenges, for example around the balance between old and new pedagogies and the issue of intellectual property. 

This has brought into sharp contrast a wide range of issues. For example our staff are seeking more control of content and delivery, at the same time as valuing co-creation more than ever before. Our students are wanting more personalised learning at the same time as expecting consistency of experience. In the British context, Brexit has added yet another tier of complexity and uncertainty in which UK universities have to operate. But across the globe, the geo-political and global context has changed more quickly in the last two years than in any similar period before. 

In this extraordinary context, what are the implications for universities in their quest to recruit international staff and students, and in the global race not just to attract, but to retain talent? What does appear clear is that our personal values are coming to the fore and shaping decisions about our futures. Almost everyone is navigating personal loss and grief, at the same time as taking a hard look at our professional lives, the place we work, the satisfaction we feel, and importance we place on these issues. We are also revisiting where we live, where we travel to, and how much work or study we want to do.

In this context, organisational culture and values have been a strong touch-point for many of these reflections, framed by how universities are acting in the pandemic. As Robert Ordever describes, danger values are seen as ‘nice to have’ in the good times rather than as a necessity at all times – especially in a crisis. Where the values were already weak, or poorly articulated and understood (by staff and students in universities), the COVID pandemic has brutally exposed this, as you can read about here.  

Articulating and living values and culture have been key issues at the University of Essex (recognised by the award of Times Higher Education University of the Year in 2018). The university’s values framed the university’s approach to decision-making at the outbreak and during the COVID pandemic – and it provided a prism to focus on what the university could control and where we could focus our energy to best effect. This meant regularly revisiting the founding mission, being daring and taking calculated risks. Of course, mistakes were made along the way and Essex is self-critical about whether it was brave enough and imaginative enough in decision making. But tremendous effort was invested in trying to get the basis of decisions right and explaining their rationale. 

Of course, the current vantage point is one in which the pandemic is not yet over. All earthquakes are destructive, but aftershocks often cause more damage. So we should be cautious about long term conclusions. It is too early to say whether the pandemic will loosen or re-orientate bonds of loyalty. It may lead to a flight of staff and students to universities that have both talked the talk and walked the walk over the last 18 months. We may yet have an even greater individual and collective readjustment ahead of us.

Universities in the UK and Australia will be further exposed to the outcomes of these many individual readjustments, as we have seen in the career decisions of a number of Australian vice-chancellors this year. But how universities articulate their values and culture, and how this manifests itself for the ‘lived experience’ of staff and students, will be a key part of whether universities just survive or thrive. Perhaps longer term, we may see the extent to which it shakes up existing hierarchies in how universities are compared and valued.

This was the topic of a conversation in our HEDx podcast conversation last week that you can listen to here. What matters for all universities in the period ahead will be ensuring they appeal to the changed needs of their staff and students by having well-articulated values driving their decisions. It will call for optimised organisational culture, brand propositions and student recruitment approaches that align with those values. University leaders will also need to be leading differently to reflect the picture in the kaleidoscope when the picture clears. These new opportunities for organisational culture, brand, recruitment and leadership are a focus for some of the hack-a-thons HEDx will be delivering with the sector in 2022.

Emeritus Professor Martin Betts, Co-Founder of HEDx

Professor Anthony Forster, Vice-Chancellor of University of Essex

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