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The ABC of higher education leadership

I have never been short on ideas and opinions about higher education, but when forced to highlight my main ideas, I would select the following three realities that, in my view, will and should dominate our future debates on the topic.

Higher education and globalisation

First, and most fundamental, is something I have talked a lot about over the past 25 or so years: Higher education cannot nor should not want to be immune to globalisation.

In economic terms, globalisation suggests movement of products, movement of consumers and virtual movement of product-consumers. So the higher education globalisation agenda covers international collaboration for teaching and research, consortia – including ad hoc, purpose-specific and generic networks – and worldwide recruitment of both staff and students.

The other key facet is the global delivery of programmes, which can be achieved through partnerships such as franchises and other forms of transnational education, including offshore campuses and online programmes.

In my own career, a consequence of being a leader at various institutions has been a place at the frontline of globalisation.

This has included: quality-driven internationalisation of research and then the establishment of student and staff mobility programmes in the mid-1980s; large-scale international student recruitment in the 1990s; offshore campus development in the first decade of the 21st century; and, more recently, a globally operated private sector provider of higher education and the creation of the global university systems.

I have never said that universities do not have a local, regional or national role, or that this should be replaced by a global outlook. On the contrary: strong local roots, identity, effectiveness and resources are essential to global success, while the local relevance of an institution is boosted by its global networks and operations.

But I have argued that globalisation – more than just ‘internationalisation’ – will become a defining feature of leading institutions in higher education, from both a quality and a revenue point of view.

Moreover, I have argued that universities should see this as an opportunity rather than a threat to be defended by a state engaged in protectionism, trying to close the national system against external players.

I even go as far as saying that universities should show other organisations how to be influential leaders in the globalisation process and how they should help their graduates to become responsible leaders in the globalising world.

Learning outside the classroom

Secondly, in my view, learning should not just be strictly classroom based.

Of course, we fully accept that, in many disciplines, learning will have to incorporate substantial elements of lab-based work, clinical work, work-integrated learning, service learning, simulated reality games etc.

The German term Bildung is not just about reflective learning; it is even more a matter of getting your hands dirty and then engaging in reflection – or, in other words, experience-integrated learning.

Effective learning is more than an intellectual pursuit, although I agree that mathematics might be the exception to that rule.

Any other discipline, however, including philosophy or history, will benefit enormously from learning outside the classroom, where experiential learning is facilitated rather than directed; where students are taught how to link theory with practice, how to reflect on reality in a context of critical thinking and how to link problems to solutions and opportunities.

In essence, education is, after all, about preparing people for greater success in the real world – not one big talent-scouting exercise for the next generation of brilliant academics. The latter is an important by-product of higher education – being a product of it myself, obviously I stress the word ‘important’– but it cannot be the primary aim.

Being sent to study abroad poses for many students a potentially life-changing challenge. So, being based in global cities such as London, Singapore, Toronto or New York, what can we do to ensure that our students appreciate the cities as their classrooms? In most cases, the biggest impact on the development of a student is being forced to survive a truly challenging environment as, for many, the new city will then become their workplace.

All efforts to help students assimilate should, of course, be bespoke: what might be greatly beneficial to one could be completely counterproductive to another.

And that is the biggest challenge in the age of mass education – the fact that we still need to treat and support each student as an individual, with individual potential, needs, talents and limitations.

If we agree that modern higher education should go well beyond preparing students for their exams, we urgently need solutions to accommodate a more personal approach, with the economic realities of today making it essential to teach large numbers of students. I shall return to that question later.

Continuous learning

The third point is that, like many other people, I believe we urgently have to update our views on graduation. For me, higher education in the 21st century should be an endless one-way street: you enter it, but you shall never leave again.

Graduation is nothing but a milestone along the road, a shift in emphasis from work-integrated learning to learning-integrated work. The old concept of ‘commencement’, where you leave college fully equipped with all the knowledge needed for a successful professional life, is seriously outdated.

Today’s professionals should be encouraged to return to college whenever they need to make a career jump and to acquire new, relevant knowledge, skills and networks.

After all, do you really need to have a profound insight into, for example, what it takes to be a non-executive director of a company when you are still an undergraduate student? A business student will need to understand the basics of governance but no more than that. Yet, when reaching that step on the career – becoming a non-executive – you will need that knowledge and should return to college.

One could argue that there are roughly five or six steps that might not all be relevant, but which a good college should have available ‘just-in-time’ for its graduates and alumni. Equally, some will face career changes – in our modern society a high-flyer is unlikely to have just one career, but more likely to have two or three.

In an ideal educational world, the college should be able to facilitate that. Furthermore, it should be open to partnerships with employers that will facilitate that.

Enlightened employers know well that success does not depend only on being able to attract the best in the global war for talent, but also on their ability to enable the continuous development of staff.

A college that understands what learning-integrated work really means will be a perfect partner. Moreover, colleges that truly understand this can look at their current budget and double it, such will be, in my expectation, the demand for post-graduation skills development in the knowledge-based economies of the future.

Hybrid learning

The arrival of web-based learning is more than just a learning tool. It is obvious that e-learning can be more than a powerful facilitator in transnational education, as well as in ‘internationalisation at home’. But it can go much further than that. It can herald a whole new approach to how we teach and learn.

The arrival of online learning programmes creates the need and the opportunity to profoundly reinvent higher education. It can easily be perceived as a threat, but is actually something that really should excite us all because it can enable us to move learning to a new level.

Of course, it is a tool, not an aim in itself. But it is a tool that can – and I suspect will – have the same impact as the invention of the printing press. Printed text revolutionised higher education, allowing lecturers to abandon dictating manuscripts and instead use classroom time for debate and the development of analytical skill and problem-solving ability, incorporating much more hands-on experience into the learning process.

As with printed text, online education, in its state-of-the-art applications, is much more effective than the traditional classroom-based learning in some aspects – and much less so in others.

In my view, it is important to shift much of what takes up lots of contact hours to the web, which is better equipped for learning by large numbers of students. If programmes and materials are designed really well, students can be taught in impressively high numbers yet still get the benefits of learning on a small scale, including the individual support that the mass education of today is rarely able to offer.

It is the paradox of e-learning that is not always fully understood and appreciated. Especially when it comes to knowledge transfer, e-learning can more easily adjust to individual needs than a crude classroom experience; with 50, 100, maybe even hundreds of students studying at the same time.

Through e-learning, one can free up time that can subsequently be used to strengthen the experience-based learning I just advocated. And, of course, web-based educational programmes are a powerful tool to support the careers of graduates.

Although alumni love to return to their alma mater on occasion, it is clear that this is likely to be more supplementary to the career support they can expect and, in the future, probably even demand from their college.

e-Learning will not replace face-to-face education, but it will be a crucial tool in moving towards the objectives described here, blending, at a global level, much more effective face-to-face education with e-learning and experience-based learning – a mixture of the three learning elements that I have referred to in the past as “hybrid learning”.

The ABC of leadership in higher education

How does vision link to leadership? Many volumes have been written about leadership and how it depends on effectiveness to convey a clear vision and sense of direction. One of the most common misunderstandings is to confuse ‘clear’ with ‘loud’.

The result of mixing leadership with ego normally results in something rather ugly or unpleasant (or worse) and in the context of higher education, where the main task is to lead specific types of professionals – often referred to as ‘cats’ – that style is most unlikely to bring lasting success.

But rather than discussing style, here I shall focus on method: the way to achieve the vision and to transform a university.

Of course, this issue is complex, to put it mildly, and deserves more than a few paragraphs. But since the secret of leadership success is the ability to express highly complex matters in simplicity, I limit myself here to its ABC.

Anyone who focuses on these three aspects of leadership in higher education should have no problem in transforming an institution, moving it towards the agreed vision. Naturally that vision needs to be fit for a specific institution, respecting its historic mission, resources and so on, but that should be self-evident.

Leadership should never be an ego trip, and although one needs to believe passionately in a vision in order to be credible, that vision does need to be fit for purpose.

The ABC is as simple as one can get it.

First of all, the ‘A’ stands for academic institution.

This is blatantly obvious and in the old days, when most universities received all their funding from government, the leader an institution really needed was the academic top-dog who had enough support from within the professoriate to keep the peace among the vying deans and raise the standing of an institution among other universities.

Academic success is very much about reputation – at individual, departmental, discipline and institutional levels. It is about peer group assessments, admiration, accreditation, quality assurance, rankings and image.

Of course, academic success and reputation are immediately linked to level of revenue, so the ability of a leader to generate funds has gradually become an ever more in-demand attribute, often pushing academic leadership to a slightly less prominent role, such as that of provosts or deans.

The latter observation brings us to ‘B’, which stands for business.

In this modern day and age most academic institutions are also academic businesses, albeit in many cases not-for-profit (but this is not a condition) and still government subsidised – although this is decreasing as a percentage of revenue in most countries.

For those who believe academia and commerce do not mix, ‘B’ is like cursing in a church, but the reality is that academic success and reputation (A) very much depends on the success of B, recognising a university as an enterprise that no longer can depend purely on an effective lobby to increase public funding.

A leader who needs money to pursue a vision and ensure success in A needs to be able to generate dosh. As every entrepreneurial leader knows, that cannot be a one-man action.

The importance of community

In my view, in present times the most important letter in the ABC of academic leadership is the last one: C.

That ‘C’ stands for community. The members of the community are not just staff and students. I define the membership of the community as anyone who has an emotional link with the institution.

So in this definition not every employee will be a proper member of the community. Some will quite simply work their hours for payment. The same applies to students: some will just study at a place to get a degree without any specific emotional attachment to the institution they enrolled with. It certainly also applies to alumni. And it applies to the neighbouring communities.

But it even applies to companies who support research, sponsor chairs, have training contracts: is it a business relationship or is the ability to create an emotional relationship in the meaning of feeling a sense of responsibility, a concern? Only those employees or students with emotional involvement are proper members of a community.

When I was in charge of the Nyenrode Business University in The Netherlands I liked to pose this question to the companies we worked with: would it make any difference to you if this university suddenly ceased to exist?

If an institution is no longer there, would that just be an inconvenience, or a real loss? If you have an emotional tie, such a loss would make you sad; or, in reverse, its success would make you feel cheerful and would be worth celebrating.

So what an effective leader of today will seek to do most of all, what probably will consume most time, is to create a coherent, strong community, to introduce and strengthen the emotional ties and crucially to widen, diversify and, as appropriate, rally that community. That is why, in my experience, fundraising can actually be fun and is an effective tool in enhancing the community spirit.

In order to be successful in a process of transformation, a leader needs to be effective in at least aligning the A, B and C. If one is able to make sure that A, B and C work towards the same objectives, mountains can be moved. A benefits from B and B will be easier when an institution has a strong reputation, but A and B can only be truly successful if carried by a large and truly committed C, since only C can deliver sustainable progression.

And that brings me to my final point: how to create, broaden, strengthen, truly involve C.

Clarity of vision and the ability to convey a message are obviously necessary, but this is where I see my colleagues (as I actually used to be myself) hampered by their education. As academics we analyse, reason, rationalise. We present a truly convincing argument. The same applies to the business case: hard numbers, sensible risk assessments, structured analysis.

Yet when it comes to C it is, above all, about emotion. Generating emotion is more than rhetoric. The most effective way to align A, B and C and create shared emotion is to focus much more on shared values than on the big vision. Of course, values and vision should be closely linked, otherwise the vision will not be fit for purpose – but values tend to be much more about emotion and even passion than vision.

Some examples

I shall finish by illustrating these ideas briefly with some concrete examples from my own career in higher education.

The University of Westminster has had a historic mission of making higher education available based on merit to those who were less likely to enter degree studies. That particular value was strongly fixed in the university’s 19th century roots and has remained prominent over the decades. It has been a powerful message and has had great unifying ability.

So how did that relate to my prime focus – pushing the university’s reputation, making it globally visible and generating substantial income from international ventures to finance our ambitions? I’ll supply three concrete examples, two from Westminster and the third from Nyenrode.

Setting up a large international scholarship – pump-primed from its own means, but also built up from contributions by the ‘community’ – allowed values and vision to be linked. It also supported B, because through the scholarship fund we strengthened enormously the commercial need for being highly visible among the 35,000 or so global universities, despite not having the academic reputation of Harvard or one of the Oxbridge universities.

Then there was the launch of the Westminster campus in Central Asia. The venture made financial and reputational sense, but equally it reinforced the university’s commitment to making high quality, corruption-free higher education available to those who would really benefit from it and who were unlikely to have alternative options.

And as a final example, at Nyenrode, which as a corporate leadership institution is highly selective and without government funding needs to charge full-cost fees, I engaged alumni in fundraising to create scholarship-loans to those students who had outstanding potential but insufficient means.

Most importantly, I expressed the core values of the university, as shaped by its quite unique view on business education over more than six decades: the trinity of leadership, entrepreneurship and stewardship. The latter referred not just to ethical behaviour, but also to a sincere sense of responsibility towards others and towards future generations.

Vision and leadership

Of course, one can rightly argue that I make it all sound too easy.

What about the ‘D’ for demographics (anticipating changes in society), the ‘E’ for estate (emotions are often provoked by buildings), the ‘F’ for facilities (essential for achieving reputation), you may ask.

All no doubt true, but the human brain rarely remembers more than three items, so I shall limit myself here to just the most obvious three, both for vision and leadership.

Moreover, it is quite obvious how the three elements of my vision can be linked to an aligning leadership. The international agenda clearly has a quality and reputation dimension; can contribute more than substantially to revenue; and can enthuse the community through a global citizenship angle, which also allows it to be incorporated into the institution’s values.

* Professor Maurits van Rooijen is chief executive (academic divisions) of Global University Systems BV and rector and CEO of the London School of Business and Finance [LSBF]. He is also president of the Compostela Group of Universities, co-chair of the World Association for Co-operative Education and vice president of the European Access Network.
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