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2019: The Year when nothing went as expected

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2019 has been a peculiar, and challenging year, for higher education. But now we’re at the end of it, might some of these challenges have helped lead to better outcomes than planned?

Here are four things that higher education should celebrate, take heart from and keep doing as we break new ground in 2020.

Nothing about 2019 has been straightforward. Questions that are fundamental to how we see and understand ourselves and experience the society we live in are being used as political volleyball. In higher education there’s an urgency for us to become futurologists, not only to predict what the students of 2020 and beyond will need, hope for and aspire to, but to understand and respond to the challenges that are faced by communities, societies and nations at large.

What we’ve seen isn’t people shying away from tough decisions, but courage and conviction to lead and be bold.”

Higher education could’ve hunkered down in the face of what 2019 has served up. Yet, through our travels, conversations, and plenty of coffees with people – students, Vice Chancellors, academics, staff developers, sustainability teams and many more – what we’ve seen isn’t people shying away from tough decisions, but courage and conviction to lead and be bold. 

Things haven’t always as we might have planned this past year, but on the brink of a New Year (and a new decade at that) we reflect back on some of the defining things from the last 12 months – the people, relationships, moments, the way we do things and what we believe in – that higher education should celebrate, take heart from and keep doing as we break new ground in 2020. 

Trust in challenging times

There’ve been inspiring examples this year of a new generation of Vice-Chancellors and other senior leaders who are not afraid to be vulnerable in front of their teams.

When colleagues see Vice-Chancellors becoming active sponsors in edging institutional cultures towards greater openness and trust, they’re up for the challenge. And when they demonstrate trust in us to facilitate the conversations that enable this to happen, these conversations lead to breakthroughs and change behaviours.

The courageous emerging breed of senior leaders is up for asking and answering questions.”

Choosing not to apply what might seem a perfectly rationale response to the systemic challenges facing universities – of adopting safer, risk-averse approaches to weathering storms – the courageous emerging breed of senior leaders is up for asking and answering questions. This isn’t weakness. It’s a vital source of strength from which we can all benefit.

One Vice-Chancellor silenced the room by identifying his own propensity to drill down too quickly to micro-details; and then talked with deep honesty about the anxiety that drives this.

These are people who have a ready disposition for learning. They’re well-placed to reap the benefits in the new decade. Here’s looking forward to more open expressions of trust through 2020.

Institutions are listening

Universities up and down the country are listening. The voices of students are making waves and changing the course that universities might have plotted only a couple of years ago. This isn’t just about provision, or quality, or NSS scores. Opportunities thrown up by the TEF are encouraging us to listen to students about what makes their course (and university) distinctive, why it’s even better than they could’ve imagined when they first started. We saw this play out for one of our clients, whose lecturers had struggled to articulate what made their course unique. Sitting in a room with students, the lecturers’ understanding was flipped 180 degrees when the students revealed “this is why it’s special. This is why I came here to study.

There is a lot of love for higher education. Let’s keep listening.” 

The structured pathways that are in place at all universities for engaging with students are crucial for gathering these sorts of insights. But in our travels we’ve been curious to know what students say ‘off the beaten track’ too, so we began talking to students in coffee shops and SUs. And what we’ve discovered are feelings of fulfilment, hope, and sometimes impatient compassion for their university. Despite what the meta-narratives might sometimes lead us to believe, there is a lot of love for higher education. Let’s keep listening. 

Individual experimentation, renewal and transformation

This isn’t something that should only happen on programmes away. It could and should be integral to how we interact in a curious, learning-oriented university.  

If we can find the space and give ourselves permission to step back and look at things from another perspective, we might find that things look different. We might see connections from above that were hidden on the ground. Or patterns or ways of being that haven’t served us well, and find ways in which things could be different, and crucially, better.

For participants we’ve worked with this year, one of the most powerful aspects stemmed from the opportunities to connect with others and to disclose to one another what matters most to them in their leadership roles.

It’s so rare in everyday University life for people to connect as fellow human beings”

This was always an emotive experience, for the very reason that it’s so rare in everyday University life for people to connect as fellow human beings: to share their purpose as individuals in whom vast responsibility and trust are constantly placed.

It was unforgettable hearing a senior leader naming the ‘beasts which hold us back’ as “The Naysayers”, “The Critical Assassins” and “myself”. Those who took part used learning from these ‘crucible’ experiences to return to their institutions with tangible plans and narratives to engage their colleagues in new ways. It’s been inspiring to hear of transformations underway – and largely because carving out that space and permission made it possible to listen to what our hearts are telling us is most important.

Reciprocity in partnership

The gift of education is a game changer, and it’s the people and their purpose that are making it happen.”

In a commercial business, it’s a quid pro quo rule: you do something for me, and I’ll do something for you. There’s a quantifiable value. But education is so much more than this, it’s a gift that keeps giving in ways we can’t always predict: building confidence, championing critical thinking, or helping us to question the way the world is and how it might be better.

Everyone working in education is an agent in this. Driving forward a culture of giving, collaborating, examining and exploring for a purpose that’s beyond profit. This is lived out through words and behaviours. We’ve seen this in leadership teams who embrace giving and receiving serious, constructive feedback for the first time, and who in doing so, channel emotions for the greater good.

And we saw this in the generosity friends of ours gave, when they shared an hour of their time to take part in a webinar we ran to find out how our community saw us, and how we might make Invisible Grail ready for the new decade. Not only did they give their time, they gave us a whole new way of seeing ourselves, and the biggest smiles to add to that.

The gift of education is a game changer, and it’s the people and their purpose that are making it happen.

Conclusion

Each of these examples lives and breathes generosity of spirit: something that warms us around the time of the Winter Solstice. It also encourages us to believe that however things may turn out, the renewal of Spring won’t be long in coming.


By Louise Clifton and Paul Gentle

Louise and Paul, Director of Marketing and Academic Director at Invisible Grail respectively, co-authored this blog. Their aspiration is to unlock the potential for creating better, stronger connections for everyone working in higher education.

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