University leaders need to demonstrate an adaptive mindset

With huge change ahead, leaders must be brave and accept that the right decisions may not always deliver the best spreadsheet results, say Alasdair Blair and Sarah Jones

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8 September 2021
University leaders must demonstrate an adaptive mindset and be aware they don't have all the answers
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It’s annual accounts season at universities. Up and down the land, a handful of university colleagues will have been straining their eyes on spreadsheets and bringing together the narrative that tells a story of how their university has performed over the past year.

Despite all that effort, very few university staff will pay any attention to these reports. Some will dismiss them as corporate waffle; others will find it difficult to move beyond the financial headlines. Many will focus solely on how much vice-chancellors and other senior staff are paid.

But beneath those headlines it’s possible to glean a little more understanding of where a university is going and what its options are in terms of future strategy and direction. This sits within a broader, resource-based view that will reflect financial recovery plans as well as the risks to university funding around the Augar Review and pension costs. The response by many universities to these challenges will include an acceleration of efforts to diversify income.

Surrounding all these issues are debates around business models and innovation strategies. There is an infinite amount of writing by business school professors on these matters. This includes discussion about the utility of “deliberate” and “emergent” strategies as articulated by the likes of Henry Mintzberg.

Chan Kim refers to the importance of “blue ocean strategy”. This is where organisations focus on “untapped market space”, looking for the opportunities where they can grow. This is instead of trying to outperform other organisations and grab a greater share of the existing marketplace, which is referred to as “red ocean strategy”.

As with other organisations, the Covid-19 pandemic has been a major disruptor to university business models. The use of predicted grades has led to significant over-recruiting by several universities for the 2021-22 academic year and caused wider disruption to the undergraduate admission strategies of many English universities, with 80 per cent of students getting into their first-choice institution.

Predicted grades also resurface discussions around student number caps and unconditional offer strategies. The latter will raise concerns among many schools and colleges and bring about more debate on education standards.

Beneath all this noise, there is a more fundamental change taking place. Covid-19 has led to a democratisation of business strategies. For leaders of all organisations, the legacy of the past 18 months has been a reminder of the importance of the individuals who make up the very organisations they lead.

Thus, while strategic planning and company reports reflect the broader corporate language, it’s important for university leaders to remind themselves that universities only exist because of the community formed via the collaboration of staff and students.

In this sense, beneath all the froth around university annual reports, we need to remind ourselves that universities are well placed to respond to these challenges given their underpinning values of education, dignity and respect.

It might be tempting to dust off a copy of a book on business models and innovation strategy that has been sitting on a bookshelf for too long, but simply adopting and transferring such strategies will rarely work. Universities are too unique for that.

That’s not to say that universities shouldn’t learn and adapt their business models, but as leaders we need to remember that we never have all the answers.

A key lesson we need to take from Covid-19 is that life has a way of constantly surprising us. While it might be possible to plan for the unexpected, plans only get you so far. Universities must be brave and accept that the right decisions may not always deliver the best results in those spreadsheets.

In moments of change, what we fall back on is our personal and organisational agility. A university’s ability to truly succeed will be determined by its underlying agility and capacity to have a resourceful and adaptive mindset. This requires us to challenge and debate and not just to accept the status quo.

For some, such a mindset can be viewed in negative terms, equivalent to that of a disruptor. Yet for organisations to adapt, there must be challenge. This ensures we’re not all thinking the same, and we shouldn’t surround ourselves with like-minded people. We must encourage others to question and to engage in a deeper level of conversation. As Simon Sinek argues, we need to inspire action by starting with the question of “why?”

Through all this, it’s important to stay firm to our own values and be clear what our purpose as leaders is. We need to remember what inspired us to be academics in the first place and to remember the colleagues who inspired, supported and mentored us on our own career path.

While spreadsheets and annual reports are important, we mustn’t forget that universities are really about the people who study and work in them. We need to provide time to mentor and support our colleagues, recognising that institutions are transitioning from previously working through change at a slower pace to suddenly needing to be adaptive to quick changes. And it’s not just staff − environments also need to be adapted to support this, along with processes and structures. In these debates, as leaders we need to be humble in our appreciation of how much and how little we know.

Alasdair Blair is associate PVC academic and Jean Monnet professor at De Montfort University. He is co-editor of Leadership in Higher Education (Emerald, 2022).

Sarah Jones is deputy dean at De Montfort University, working across all aspects of student experience, outcomes and innovative pedagogies.

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