Many global universities have long held positions as being institutions with a reputation. When surveys are made of which professions we trust and believe in, scientists and professors usually feature toward the top of any lists, and politicians, as an example, feature towards the bottom. The pandemic has added to this variety of reputations in some ways.
One could go further and argue that the value of the product of a university as a credential and award is entirely based on the awarding body being one with a reputation. And the reputation of an institution is increasingly associated with its place in rankings, as this becomes evidence of the levels of status we might associate with that institution.
The people that work in universities also fit into hierarchies of status and achievement based on peer review and assessment of the reputation of their knowledge. We differentiate between lecturers, senior lecturers and professors largely on the basis of how much they are reputed within their discipline for the publications they have produced, the reputation those papers have in citations by others, and the grants and students those reputations are able to attract and progress.
These reputations are largely the products of achievement, history and peer review. With a paucity of any further information, these become the dominant indicators of quality of institutions in the sector and of members of its workforce. They become used by institutions in the sector to project status and reputation to prospective students.
But the nature of working practice in our universities, and the nature of learning by students is moving beyond such simplified views of quality. The quality judgements we make are increasingly associated with experiences of staff and students.
As in so many other sectors, these have been gradually changing for some time, and accelerated in recent times, as we move towards more hybrid ways of working and learning. Indeed, our acceptance of the campus model of university education is increasingly questioned with our changed expectations for working and learning in the last three years.
One of the dominant ways in which staff can feel engaged in all hybrid workforces, and increasingly in universities, is through feeling the sense of being trusted. Micro-management of fellow leaders and staff, meeting-dominated cultures, and obscuring the focus on the purpose of learning and research as a public good, by a narrow institutional self-interest, can undermine the reputation and inherent purpose-driven commitment of staff on which so many universities rely.
And the same principles extend to the engagement of students. Learners thrive in situations where they are trusted by their institutions and feel a commitment, shared purpose and feeling of trust towards their university, their discipline and their program of study and what it is leading them to.
These reputations, and their trust, are fragile at all times, have been threatened in recent times, and are exposed in the new hybrid times.
Leaders who are able to hire great people and get out of their way are able to generate extraordinary commitment and passion from staff who thrive in such supportive and trusted cultural environments. And students that feel a purpose to their study, and that their journey is showing evidence along the way, of leading to purposeful employment, professional alingment and real opportunity, are able to respond with enthusiasm.
Leaders who can communicate that they are not kept awake at night by fears over performance of team members become trusted. They have their trust repaid in colleagues and teams that share the ownership of purpose, mission and the licence and agency to find their path towards achieving both.
The style of trusted and empathetic leadership at Manchester Metropolitan University, through the authentic and calm approach of its leadership team, has generated strong levels of staff engagement. It is leading to an institutional and individual eagerness to pilot new approaches to innovation.
And a student focus in university decisions of what courses to offer, and how to offer them, that lead to likely employment, are leading to high levels of student demand and rapid growth in new forms of study such as degree apprenticeships.
Manchester Met has seen a 17% increase in student demand so far in 2022 which is only partly explained by the prevailing demographic changes in numbers of young people in the age group. And the level of interest in pioneering models of degree apprenticeships, across all areas of discipline study, are adding to a sense in which students trust this almost 200-year-old institution. It is being trusted to have its students’ interests, and future job prospects, at heart in designing programs of study and associated learning models.
The resulting growth in demand for the university is seeing particularly high widening participation growth and graduate outcomes among under-represented groups. The diversity and inclusion purpose of the institution is being well-served by taking a trusted approach towards its students, by staff that trust, and are trusted by, its leaders.
It is likely that universities will always have a focus on their reputation. And rankings are diversifying in what they measure not only in terms of academic prestige. For instance, the most recent THE Impact rankings measure institutions’ contributions towards achieving UN Sustainable Development Goals.
What would a ranking for a university and its leaders based on its authenticity, empathy and trust shown towards its staff and students look like? And what universities might thrive in this way of ranking reputation which might have a much greater correlation between measures of culture and staff and student experiences?
My HEDx podcast conversation with Malcolm Press, the VC of Manchester Met, was around university strategy, purpose, culture and leadership. It traversed many of these issues as you can listen to here.
First published in Campus Review on 11th May 2022
Emeritus Professor Martin Betts, Co-founder of HEDx