We can face the challenge of corporatisation by embracing subversive leadership

Educational developers must balance the corporatisation of higher education with providing transformative education. To do this, subversive leadership is the key, argues Richard McInnes

Richard McInnes's avatar
8 Jul 2024
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Educational developer practitioners are often positioned as leaders at the forefront of university teaching and learning change initiatives. They face critical choices daily as they aim to empower a culture of learning while achieving the quantifiable outcomes expected of increasingly corporate and marketised institutions. To balance these perspectives, we must consciously define our identity as leaders in teaching and learning. Subversive leadership provides the means for this praxis – a critical reflection on our actions and combining theory and practice to drive social change.

The concept of subversive leadership is borrowed from pre-tertiary education, where school headteachers undertake activities to challenge, disrupt and resist policies, practices and political agendas in favour of the needs of their student cohorts

Applying this to the higher education space is less about all-out anarchy but more about challenging the effects of corporatisation, marketisation and neoliberalism. A subversive leadership approach can aid educational developers in navigating the demands of contemporary university structures, while championing the teaching and learning agency and empowerment of academic staff. This is, after all, in the interests of all students, benefiting them and their well-being

But what does a subversive leadership approach look like for educational developers?  How can they adopt a variety of strategies that balance institutional demands with the commitment to transformative education?

Strategies for embracing subversive leadership

To break down the praxis of subversive leadership into practical actions, educational developers can adopt a variety of strategies that balance institutional demands with the commitment to transformative education. 

If you are ready to embrace subversive leadership in your practice, here are several approaches to try implementing:

Foster a culture of inquiry

Educational developers should encourage a culture of inquiry by asking critical, sometimes uncomfortable, questions necessary for growth:

  • Critical questioning: Regularly ask critical questions about new policies and practices. Don’t shy away from asking questions that may not be welcome but are essential for addressing underlying issues, such as: Who really benefits from these changes? What are the potential impacts on students and staff? What are the impacts on the university’s vision?
  • Critical dialogue: Facilitate open discussions that explore the deeper implications of policies and practices, encouraging a more critical examination of the institution’s direction.
  • Active resistance: Encourage a mindset of active resistance to policies and practices that do not align with student and staff-centred higher education and understood teaching and learning quality practices, or the values of equity and justice.
  • Continuous improvement: Foster a culture of continuous improvement where the status quo is regularly questioned and improvements are consistently sought.

Champion equity and inclusion

Focus on equity and inclusion to ensure all staff and students have equitable opportunities to succeed, particularly those from marginalised groups. 

  • Inclusive curriculum design: Work with faculty to design curricula that reflect diverse perspectives and experiences. Empowering ideas such as the decolonisation of the curriculum.
  • Support services: Advocate for robust support services, such as tutoring and counselling, that support the needs of under-represented students. For  staff, offer additional appropriate capability-building on how to be allies for marginalised colleagues.
  • Critical pedagogies: Empower staff to embrace pedagogical approaches that enable students to challenge power structures, develop agency and challenge hegemonies.
  • Use technology: For example, advocating for open educational resources to reduce costs for students and encourage faculty to use and create open resources.

Advocate for student- and staff-centred policies

Promote policies and practices that prioritise the needs and experiences of students and staff:

  • Engaging in policy development: Participate in committees and working groups where policies are crafted, ensuring student and staff voices and needs are at the forefront.
  • Evidence-based advocacy: Use data and research to highlight the benefits of student and staff-centred approaches, presenting these findings to stakeholders to support policy changes.
  • Critical examination: Regularly review and critically assess institutional practices and policies to identify and challenge those that do not adequately benefit staff or students. Promote a culture that encourages innovative thinking and the questioning of traditional methods.
  • Strategic vision: Familiarise yourself with your university’s strategic vision statements. Becoming knowledgeable in this area will help you position your arguments and defence when engaging in discussions where subversive leadership is necessary. You would be hard-pressed to find a university vision statement that isn’t sometimes at odds with marketisation and corporatisation. So, directing attention back to these overarching values is a useful approach.

Model subversive leadership

Educational developers should exemplify subversive leadership to support others to engage with this approach. 

  • Leading by example: Demonstrate subversive practices in their own work, showing how these approaches can be both effective and sustainable.
  • Mentorship: Mentor junior faculty and staff, guiding them in adopting and integrating subversive leadership practices in their roles.
  • Continuous improvement: Foster a culture of continuous improvement where the status quo is regularly questioned and improvements are consistently sought.

Embracing subversive leadership in educational development is not just an act of resistance but a commitment to fostering a more equitable, student-centred and reflective academic environment. By engaging in the praxis above, educational developers can navigate the complexities of contemporary higher education while championing transformative practices. This will lead to the creation of institutions that truly serve the needs and aspirations of all their students and staff. In doing so, we as educational developers can embody the very essence of subversive leadership – innovative, inclusive and resolutely dedicated to the betterment of education.

Richard McInnes is manager of education design at the University of Adelaide.

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