How to manage rapid change

Steve Olivier offers tips for a smoother transition

October 1, 2015
Donkey being led by carrot
Source: Alamy

Googling the words “change” and “quotes” reveals much sage advice from the likes of George Bernard Shaw, Steve Jobs, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Barack Obama. The need for constant change is often held to be self-evident: John F. Kennedy said that “change is the law of life”.

So why are most universities monolithic, conservative, bureaucratic and resistant to change? F. M. Cornford’s splendid little monograph Microcosmographia Academica (1908) examines the “enemy of inertia” and finds that “there is only one argument for doing something; the rest are arguments for doing nothing”. While change is theoretically deemed to be a “good thing” by “change managers” – commonly known as vice-chancellors and deputy vice-chancellors – those managers often encounter resistance from ordinary academics. I recently saw a lecturer informing students of the introduction of the grade point average system with the words: “Don’t shoot the messenger, blame senior management.”

I would like to think, however, that the spirit of enquiry along with a curiosity imperative and a genuine desire for improvement are antecedents for change in higher education. As a practising – and I practise because I do intend to get better – deputy vice-chancellor, my own motives for “change initiatives” are well-intentioned, even though working academics might sometimes distrust them. (A few years ago, in senate, another professor disparagingly referred to me as a “mere administrator”, despite the fact that I was still research active and entered into the 2014 research excellence framework.) But the arrival of a new vice-chancellor is often a fiercer catalyst for change. In our case, the new arrival wisely kept quiet and keenly observed current practices before making up his mind. Since then, however, change has been constant, rapid and indeed profound, affecting everyone connected to the organisation.

I don’t believe that I am exaggerating. In just 18 months, we have introduced new joint degrees and compulsory interdisciplinary central electives for all students, and cut fully a third of our old programmes that were not viable. Feedback turnaround time to students on their assessed work is now 10 working days, with students submitting work electronically and receiving their feedback and marks the same way. We have regularised the time-table so that students are in the same place at the same time every week. We introduced GPA alongside honours classification with a simplified literal grading scheme for assessment. We extended our graduate attributes scheme to embrace the entire university community, not just students. We simplified our academic regulations, cutting 105 pages down to just eight. All modules will in future carry 20 credits rather than 15. We created a graduate school that has delivered a new suite of centrally controlled, resource-efficient master’s degrees to replace the myriad small, uneconomic ones. We introduced Scotland’s first portfolio of genuine accelerated degrees, allowing students to complete in three years rather than four. Our academic calendar has changed from two semesters to three terms, regularising holidays and enabling us to introduce feedback and reading weeks. And we secured external funding for annual teaching and learning development grants.

In many universities, any one of these changes might have provoked a riot, and to introduce all of them at once would have made May 1968 in Paris look tame. So how did we do it? The emphasis here is really on the “we”. While the impetus for some changes came from me as deputy vice-chancellor, as is proper, many were modified through discussion, and many came from elsewhere, informed by the literature and practice of our own and other institutions. Whatever we did, we always applied what I have come to call the “three Ps” test:

  • What is the purpose? If we could not articulate, in fewer than 10 words, a cogent reason for a policy to exist then we probably didn’t need it.
  • What are the principles? No initiative could proceed without our first agreeing to no more than 10 principles to guide it. For example, the first principle of our assessment policy is that it should be fair to both students and staff in terms of workload.
  • What would the actual practice be? Practices and processes can always be evaluated against principles and should not contradict them.

For all the changes I have outlined, we engaged virtually the entire university community in discussion. Typically, things started with a discussion in my office involving the director of teaching and learning and the intellectual lead for teaching and learning. If appropriate, I might call someone in, ad hoc, to test the idea. The first real road test would involve my walking around the university and randomly asking those at the coalface what they thought. Unsurprisingly, some of these conversations were robust, particularly regarding the 10-day feedback turnaround. Another road test would be a conversation with the principal, who is pleasingly engaged with and knowledgeable about teaching and learning concepts, issues and practices. Next, we would engage students, on a walkabout, or from the elected representatives, or via a chat at the Student Representative Council. Briefings and discussions with each academic school would follow, plus drop-in lunch sessions at university-wide teaching and learning seminars. We were careful to avoid reinventing the wheel or being too inward looking. We visited other universities that had successfully implemented a particular initiative. We also occasionally invited national experts in particular areas to advise us on pitfalls and successes. Only at the end of all this would we move to the formal committee process, and then only if actually necessary. By having such a hugely inclusive approach involving so many people (and often the same people) in different initiatives, we could spot interconnections, inconsistencies and benefits, and largely avoid unintended consequences.

Did everyone agree with everything? Of course not – this is a university after all, and universal agreement would represent a sterile learning environment. My approach has always been to bounce my ideas off people and listen carefully to any reservations; they often make sense, and many of our practices are vastly improved as a result of people refining my initial thoughts.

Does it all work? Well, it’s too early to tell for many initiatives and there is doubtless much to learn, but the signs are promising and we did all we could to ensure a smooth transition. For example, in introducing a 10-day feedback turnaround, we simultaneously increased module size to 20 credits, limited summative assessment to two pieces per module, added feedback weeks to each term and introduced efficiencies to remove administrative tasks from academics, thereby freeing up time. Similarly, in introducing electronic marking, we provided anyone who wanted it with two screens or an iPad for marking on the move, plus the necessary training.

Why have things (so far) worked for us? I am not a management guru so my reflections are founded on experience rather than theory. I believe that three primary factors are in play: involvement, scale and pace – all necessary but not sufficient conditions.

Involvement is perhaps the most obvious: the single most important benefit of involving as many as possible as early as possible is that you get a better product at the end. Doing so results in improvements to the original idea and helps to avoid pitfalls – staff on the front line can readily spot both. Another benefit is a justifiable defence against claims of non-consultation. I acknowledge here that I have the “management” view that consultation does not necessitate agreement, but it does involve listening, considering and explaining. On scale, we deliberately chose to change many things at the same time, as this, along with involving as many of those affected as possible, forced us to consider consequences (including the unintended ones) for related areas of business. As for pace, we felt that if, after such extensive consultation, you believe that a change is for the better, then it is best to enact it right away to gain the benefits that you anticipate. As the ubiquitous marketing slogan says, “Just do it!” And if you get some things wrong? Well, the answer to that is obvious: change!

Steve Olivier is deputy vice-chancellor (academic) at Abertay University.

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