The importance of listening to university stakeholders

It can be a formidable, revealing as well as exciting and certainly necessary part of any university’s regular planning and improvement agenda to engage in open discussions with its key stakeholders. Students, alumni, staff, community groups, industry and professions as well as governments are all stakeholders in higher education.

It could be said that in small developing countries or rural and regional communities where there is just one university, all these stakeholders stand to gain (or lose) a lot, based on how well their university contributes to and positively transforms the human, social and economic condition of the country or community.

In some way or another all these stakeholder groups are or will be affected by what the university does and produces. Further, as is the case in developing countries, many will be able to support the university to achieve its government mandate of meeting the human resource needs of the country. And so it augurs well for the university to listen to and potentially incorporate what they have to say.

Stakeholder engagement usually involves communicating with stakeholders about an institution’s achievements to date and its plans for the future as well as asking their views about both, especially the latter. Stakeholder feedback can then be appropriately factored into the change management process.

High expectations

I recently facilitated a series of stakeholder focus group discussions with students, recent graduates, staff, industry, professional and community groups as well as ministry officials on behalf of a young national university. The broad, overarching question asked of all groups was: What do you think the university needs to improve on?

The discussions were incredibly insightful and reinforced the high expectations that exist in developing countries for their national university to make a real, constructive difference to the lives of its citizens.

All stakeholders, without prompting, identified the same issues as being critical to the future development of the university. They were:
  • • The quality of the courses being delivered.

  • • The quality of the resources, technology and equipment that support the delivery of the courses.

  • • The quality of the academic staff who design and deliver the courses.

  • • The quality of the students being accepted onto the courses.

  • • The quality of the graduates being produced.
I would suggest that it is a list relevant to most universities around the globe.

For students, the area they rated as most important was the quality of the academic staff and the teaching-learning experience. They expected academics to be knowledgeable and up-to-date in their disciplines and able to deliver content that was relevant to the real world in an engaging and motivating way.

For staff, the area they rated most highly was the quality of students coming into the university. They expected the standard of entry to be at least comparable to other universities in their region and highlighted the significance of prospective students having the requisite good literacy standards.

For industry and community groups, the quality of the courses being delivered was rated highest, with particular reference to ensuring the curriculum is reviewed regularly to keep it contemporary. They were also vocal about the importance of embedding graduate attributes alongside knowledge learning outcomes and providing students with multiple work-based learning opportunities.

For ministry officials, there was no single most important area highlighted. All five areas were seen as equally significant and interrelated. Understandably they emphasised the role the university must play in helping meet the challenges of the country and commented on the importance of research in doing this and in developing an identity for the university. They expected the university to provide leadership and develop the country’s talent.

Real leadership

I have been involved in several such exercises in four countries over the past few years. Most of the universities involved responded positively and genuinely to the stakeholder feedback. There was an overarching acknowledgement from university senior staff that the views raised – some of which were hard to hear – were shared within a spirit of concern and respect for the future potential of their university.

A positive response to such a necessary organisational process, which results in real change at the operational level, shows real leadership. It has, in the majority of instances, led to a sincere offer on the part of various stakeholders to support the university to continuously improve and work toward truly transforming the human, social and economic condition of the society it is embedded in.

Dr Nita Temmerman is a former university pro vice-chancellor (academic) and executive dean of the faculty of education at the University of Southern Queensland, Australia. She is currently chair of two higher education academic boards in Australia, visiting professor to Ho Chi Minh City Open University and Solomon Islands National University, as well as invited specialist with the Hong Kong Council for Accreditation of Academic and Vocational Qualifications, invited external reviewer with the Oman Academic Accreditation Authority, registered expert at the Australian Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, and a published author.