National Centre for Entrepreneurship in EducationWhy it's important that universities learn to move with agility

Why it's important that universities learn to move with agility

Building entrepreneurial leadership skills helps university decision-makers adapt quickly and with greater resilience

We’re living in a time of rapid and disruptive change,” says Professor Mary Stuart, vice-chancellor of the University of Lincoln and one of the key contributors to the National Centre for Entrepreneurship in Education’s (NCEE) suite of programmes. “It may be the pandemic we’re concerned with now, but we’re also seeing shifts in political and social structures and we’ve closed our ties with the EU. Things we thought were stuck are coming unstuck.” If universities are to stay relevant amid this backdrop of dramatic change, agile and entrepreneurial leadership is crucial.

The University of Lincoln’s 21st Century Lab proposes that universities become more “permeable”, Professor Stuart explains. They must shun traditional styles of leadership to accept that “they are no longer the only creators of knowledge”, building a wider network of partnerships and becoming more fluid with the rest of society instead. This will help leaders adopt a more entrepreneurial approach because they’re no longer making decisions in a vacuum. “So when you make decisions, there’s enough context to make them fast. You can horizon-scan and be ahead, and you can only do that if you’re properly permeable,” Professor Stuart adds.

Ian Dunn, provost for Coventry University Group and chair of the NCEE, believes the institutions that learn from the experiences of Covid-19 will reap the benefits in a post-pandemic world, particularly with regard to digital transformation. There has been a marked difference between institutions that responded reactively to online learning and those that chose to enact broader change that would provide a solid digital foundation for the future, Mr Dunn argues. “This is a moment of opportunity to bring things together into a more coherent whole,” says Mr Dunn. “We have lots of experience in building physical campuses, but we’re now learning how to build a digital campus. This requires not just a ‘change mindset’ but a deep understanding of your organisation.”

Feeling comfortable with risk and learning from failure are key skills that university leaders need to work on, says Professor Stuart. “Risk is a key element of an entrepreneurial approach and leadership style. It’s about making sure you have enough information but not too much to make decisions. People will have your back if you fail, otherwise you’ll never innovate.” On an operational level, this can feel like a process of letting go because decisions happen quickly and collectively, she says: “One of my favourite phrases is ‘change is the new black’; we’re doing a lot at Lincoln to support colleagues to feel confident in a space that’s not fixed.”

Preparing students for life after university includes helping them feel comfortable with uncertainty, too. “We need to support students to be open to change but also resilient to it, and that is two sides of the same coin,” Mr Dunn explains. Discussions around technology and how universities continue to improve their virtual learning offer need to happen with students rather than for them. “When we talk about co-creation, it’s not just about curriculum and content, but also learning methods and approaches. They’re more familiar with the technology that’s driving education but also learning methods and approaches. We have lots to learn about how they live their lives.”

Find out more about NCEE’s entrepreneurial leadership programmes.

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