Have universities learned how to be ready for a crisis?

Universities, along with most other complex organisations, have endured a very tough year. When a crisis strikes – and make no mistake COVID-19 constitutes a crisis – an organisation is compelled to confront the reality of how well its systems and processes function, what it could do better and where its vulnerabilities remain.

Universities responded in different ways to the disruption of ‘business as usual’ caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Some dallied while others rushed into new ways of doing things before they were sufficiently ready. It would be fair to say that many were unsure how to best respond because of a deficiency of information or the amount of divergent information available, or an absence of national direction or an overall lack of clarity of strategy witnessed in many places.

The need for good leadership

The result was varying reactions to dealing with the change demanded by the pandemic, including, inter alia: quarantining students in campus dorms or, in some cases, hotels; cancelling study abroad programmes; shutting campuses altogether; moving to online learning, which necessitated swift training for some academics in online delivery and digital learning platforms; providing a reduction in student tuition fees; and changing student assessment practices.

For staff, remote work became the norm and international conference travel was abandoned.

Many of the changes were made quickly with varying degrees of success and understanding.

The traditional and continuing main functions of universities are to teach and to research and, in so doing, to meet the needs of society and improve it. The organisational structure should ensure teaching and research are both able to flourish. The structure should ensure the organisation is agile and that it encourages innovation. The structure should promote open, understandable communication and timely and appropriate decision-making.

Ultimately, it is the leadership at the very top that impacts on what organisational design is adopted and how well governed the university is. Good governance should lessen, not increase, senseless bureaucracy and confusion around decision-making.

Undoubtedly, 2020 was a watershed year for universities, which witnessed some institutions confronting and dealing with the challenges presented well, while others did not do so well.

Agile universities

To be agile means to have the ability to move quickly and easily. It is reasonable to say that this is not a notion one naturally associates with universities. Universities are generally brilliant at lumbering along rather than doing things swiftly. It is rare indeed to see a good
idea become a prompt reality.

In fact, universities are full of clever people with great ideas that take forever to get implemented, if they are at all. But opportunities for innovation and quick adaptation abound despite the demands on universities, which have only increased over the years.

Higher education institutions live in an audit culture where quality assurance agencies that exist in most countries require semi-regular extensive and costly reporting on how the organisation is meeting the expected standards.

University budgets are increasingly under pressure as is the goal of income generation and how the public monies that go toward universities are being spent.

Competition for students continues to increase as students become more discerning in their selection of institutions and programmes of study and as technology has opened up competition on a global level.

And then along came 2020 which confronted the sector with a new set of unanticipated challenges and the need for substantial change to deal with them.

Any disaster poses unique circumstances to the institutional leadership to enact swift and influential change. The organisational politics that tend to play a significant role in universities, along with the oftentimes cumbersome bureaucratic processes that effectively mitigate against rapid change, disappear in times of crisis.

Prompt decision-making is welcomed along with quick implementation of actions to address the challenge, all at a pace that would ordinarily not be accepted. So-called innovative ideas that were previously dismissed are suddenly viewed as commendable opportunities to tackle the current crisis.

This was certainly the case with varying approaches to online learning suddenly adopted by institutions that had voiced little enthusiasm for such approaches in the past.

COVID-19 has tested universities’ organisational agility. It has presented a unique prospect to the higher education sector to evaluate on a broader level its readiness to confront extraordinary challenges – to forego the usual unhurried pace of incremental change and extended discussion for radical and immediate change in order to respond effectively in times of crisis.

Preparing for the next crisis

Organisational leadership, governance structure and institutional culture all play a major part in shaping any change activity and the probability of effective change happening. An institution’s approach to strategic planning and continuous improvement also influences

Change is complicated, unpredictable and not easy to manage. The higher education sector faces an ever-increasing pace of changes that impact every level of the organisation.

However, after the past year universities would do well to commit to giving a higher priority than ever to how well prepared they are to successfully and quickly respond to future crises, to being more agile in their decision-making processes and to becoming more resilient.

Dr Nita Temmerman has held senior university positions including pro vice-chancellor (academic quality and partnerships) and executive dean in Australia. She is an invited accreditation specialist with the Hong Kong Council for Accreditation of Academic and Vocational Qualifications and international associate with the Center for Learning Innovations and Customised Knowledge Solutions, Dubai. She is chair of two higher education academic boards, invited professor and consultant to universities in Australia, the Pacific region, Southeast Asia and the Middle East.