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Leading a university in the business of hope: opinion

Institutions in all sectors, including higher education, are shaped by, and in the image of their leaders.

What leaders bring with them from childhood experiences and family backgrounds often frame their values, ambitions, and priorities, which can in turn shape their leadership goals, philosophies, and employer choices.

Many universities treasure excellence above all else, especially within one’s discipline. As “expert cultures,” status and advancement usually go to the smartest person in the room, so leaders naturally reward and try to model that kind of intellectual brilliance themselves.

However, at a time when students are struggling – with emotional well-being, with inequities, with climate anxiety, and often with attacks on their very being (especially if LGBTQ or a student of colour) – intellectual brilliance as a value is increasingly giving way to, or at least making room for: emotional intelligence, relationship, and new definitions of both student, and institutional, success.

As such, our sector is increasingly looking for leaders with other values, skills, and ambitions to rethink our universities for the fraught time in which we find ourselves.

We are faced with new and evolving expectations from stakeholders, whether a more diverse student body, employers hiring our graduates, government entities providing funding, or people who work for us and want to have more impact on the world.

Many of the institutions that today dominate traditional rankings would not show up in a ranking that instead focused on economic mobility, graduation rates of low-income students, workplace readiness of graduates, and the degree to which their lives were transformed.

The graduates of the Ivy League, or Russel Group, high achieving and privileged when they arrive on campus, leave it….well, high achieving and privileged. That is the work of excellence perhaps, but not of transformation and equity and social justice.

We are in the business of providing hope. And more of our institutions and leaders are embracing this mission. Raising hopes that can’t be fulfilled could be more harmful than not raising them in the first place.

The student enticed by a scholarship, to commence studies in a program at an institution that doesn’t fit with their needs, might suffer more non-completion harm than if they enrolled with a more appropriate program and institution, or not commenced study at all.

The first-generation student who works to gain acceptance to an elite university and then faces daily signals that say “You do not belong,” has far better options than they know. We should measure those that complete rather than those that enrol in study programs to have a fair perspective of how equitable our sector is.

The number of non-completions in higher education and their skew towards disadvantaged groups is not going to be solved by more scholarships from a well-endowed institution, into a program of study unfit for purpose, or a culture that does not treat them like they matter.

One of our greatest challenges is to not only overcome inequitable enrolment but even more inequitable rates of graduation. The way to do this is to prioritise and personalise support to diverse students as is argued in a recent book.

Students First demonstrates that a major impediment to delivering fulfilled hope, is an education model and system based on time, with time fixed and non-negotiable and learning variable and uncertain.

Time is a reflection of privilege: to have it, to control it, and to squander it is not a luxury afforded to low-income learners.

The time-based system of organising and delivering higher education into credit hours, terms, and semesters has a history based on rewarding teachers for work and calculating retirement pension entitlements.

It was a system never designed for, and therefore ill-suited to, the needs of both employers needing graduates with skills and competence, and of students with varied and continuously changing access to time.

We have built our models of curriculum design, employment, pedagogy, enrolment, registration, and graduation rules around that time-based model. It undoubtedly suits our legacy systems of organising a university.

There is scant and decreasing evidence of it suiting increasing numbers of more diverse students. It disadvantages underrepresented students. The paradigm of competency-based education (CBE) flips the switch on what we value, how we deliver it, and how the student’s that we put first, will succeed.

If we fix the competencies that our students are required to gain and demonstrate and vary the time at which and over which they achieve it (giving them much needed flexibility), they become unstuck. They can complete at much greater rates, particularly those from disadvantaged and time-poor backgrounds. They can go faster and slower as life circumstances demand.
The current approach of fixing time and varying competence is not suitable for providing the required skills of employment and underlies much of the skills gap increasingly evident in graduate recruitment.

The aviation student and pilot that completed their 3-year degree on time, with A grades in most subjects, but that can’t land planes well, has a skills gap. And the doctor that after many years of study is good at most things, but is only C grade at some others, is not who we want caring for us and our families.
The dominance of a time-based system over CBE hinders equitable enrolment. It is a greater inhibitor to equitable rates of completion. The flaw with a time-based system is not one of students being not ready for university, but of universities being not ready for students. This is the case most particularly with the employed, mature age, non-school leaver, lifelong learners that are our fastest growing cohorts.

But the phenomenon is broader than that.

As the changes in school-leaving student lives, expectations, and practices accelerate, time-flexible CBE approaches are better for traditional student groups and their completions too. They are even more strongly suited to the skills needs of their current and future employers.

Changing from a time to a competence-based model of higher education is being practiced in some of the fastest growing universities in the world and is getting poor students unstuck. One could argue that in doing so it is getting the whole higher education system unstuck.

There is evidence that it is easier to change from the legacies and conventions of a time-based educational model as a new entrant or challenger university than a global leader. The extraordinary growth and success of Western Governors University and Southern New Hampshire University show that.
The global ecosystem of higher education is changing with innovative universities seeking new purposes through a new breed of leaders.

They are aligning those new purposes with innovative applications of EdTech in many cases. It seems clear that transformation in the purpose of higher education, and new business models to achieve it, supported by new technologies, will see new winners and losers emerge in The New Learning Economy.

We should note that more than 50% of higher education google searches in the US are for non-degree courses.

Searchers are almost certainly seeking skills, more than learning outcomes. What they seek most is to acquire new skills in their own time and in their preferred way of studying, more than they do to enrol and succumb to a university’s system, whatever its place in the rankings.

We will only provide what this growing proportion of students hope for when we really do put students first as we explored together on this episode of the HEDx podcast published recently.

Emeritus Professor Martin Betts is a co-founder of HEDx and Professor Paul LeBlanc is the President of Southern New Hampshire University.

First published in Campus Review on 8th February 2023.
Emeritus Professor Martin Betts, Co-Founder of HEDx
Professor Paul LeBlanc is the President of Southern New Hampshire University