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Halpin Sector Report: Leading Through Covid – Lessons for HE in Transition

Sector Report
This report tells the Covid-19 leadership story in HE so far as seen through the eyes of those who are in key higher education leadership roles.

The aim of the project is to capture the leadership lessons as we travel through this extraordinary period. The following summary provides headlines on the methodology and key themes.

In October and November 2020, Halpin conducted 28 structured in-depth conversations with university leaders individually and in groups, many of them Vice-Chancellors, across the UK. There were also conversations with the FE sector. The interviews covered a wide range of leadership perspectives, including crisis management, the student experience and academic leadership, decision-taking, civic leadership and institutional governance. The conversations will be repeated in 2021, probably from a wider range of viewpoints

Higher Education has been a key player in the pandemic story. It is making a profound impact through its research-led endeavours to develop a vaccine and find other treatments and technologies to mitigate the effects of the Coronavirus. At the same time, under challenging circumstances, it is delivering education to nearly 2.5 million students from the UK and internationally, directly employing approximately 500,000 staff, and working with key partners in business, civic authorities, and communities across the UK. Unlike other parts of the economy, ‘HE never closed’.

The narrative flowing from this study is pulled together under the following emergent themes:

Crisis leadership – developing newfound agility and flexibility in handling change; putting to the test a range of variants of the ‘Gold /Silver/Bronze crisis command systems, balancing top-down with bottom-up.

Student support and academic leadership – pivoting between variations of online and blended learning in a process of co-creation between students and staff, balancing quality standards and safety in a delicate industrial relations context; striving to maintain an acceptable quality of social experience for students during testing lockdown situations.

Staff engagement and support – achieving a step-change in volume and style of communications with high levels of engagement, using on-line platforms, balancing home working with on-campus activities in teaching and support services; placing a major emphasis on well being and support to address anxiety and fatigue • Civic leadership – making a unique contribution to collaborative leadership at every level of surrounding the community, city and region

Decision taking processes – implications of shift to online meetings: greater agility and informality, with a range of impacts on the quality of engagement

Culture – many positive lessons about support, compassion, well-being and kindness; a range of perspectives on shifting expectations in relationships: balancing energy and burn-out;

Institutional governance – reflections on style and flexibility of Council meetings; handling risk and the relationship between academic and institutional governance in developing post-Covid strategies.

Questions and frameworks are offered to encourage reflection around these themes, to be used internally within institutions or across the sector in webinar conversations.

It is a story of major achievement and success, but also one that has understandably generated anxiety, tension and controversy. While focusing on the current story, the Report invites university leaders at all levels across the sector to find the opportunity to reflect with staff and students on lessons learned and to look ahead to beyond the pandemic crisis. A key challenge for the future is to decide which of those different dimensions of running our universities should be retained.

At its height, leadership inside the crisis was hugely challenging, but ironically, leading out of the crisis may be more demanding on leadership capability if lessons from the multitude of innovations are to be embedded into the culture and practices of our HE institutions.

This is an initial report. We are not yet completely through the most intense phase of the pandemic. This project will continue through 2021 to refine the methodology, maybe to widen the community consulted, and to capture more of the lessons, and to reflect them back to the sector.

Ewart Wooldridge CBE Consulting Fellow