Skip to main content

What does it take to change higher education culture for good?

Author: Martin Betts | As seen in Campus Review

Leading an Australian university just got even more difficult. Minister Alan Tudge clarified in his UA conference speech what many feared. There is no new public funding for the sector.

He restated that research needs to shift from being valued because it is highly cited, which academics are used to, and universities currently reward, to focus on commercialisation. That will be hard to sell. It lacks the guarantee that a pipeline of great ideas to take to market will continue. It would leave us vulnerable in rankings, which continue to prioritise citations, grant funding and awards, and make it harder against international competitors that continue to focus more on basic research.

The minister is calling for classes to be back on campus for domestic students now, as they are in schools. Making that happen will be hard for leaders to square off with state-based COVID restrictions. And harder still to convince staff to do this, if they are enjoying their own hybrid conditions of work, as many are.

And as a revamp of international higher education strategy, to change business models to give a new route to funding, he is calling for there to be 10 million offshore and online international students enrolled at Australian universities by 10 years from now. That is an average of around a quarter of a million each, for all of our universities.

No universities are geared up to support that scale of delivery. Imagine what goes through the minds of academic staff, already challenged to provide quality student supervision in current hybrid forms, if this becomes combined with the logistics of accommodating time differences to deliver online classes to international and domestic students, and also pivot their research to new funding priorities and success measures. How will this contribute to the precarity of their position? How will they respond to leaders encouraging them to do it?

The minister is hinting at developing policy to differentiate universities. It suggests not all “39 peas in the pod” will retain both a research and teaching and learning focus, mission and funding. This will have a significant impact on the landscape of higher education. It will destabilise the working lives, and emotions, of academics even further.

Extensive research of vice-chancellors and faculty heads in the UK and Australia reveals the challenge of leading change. It arises as they seek to disrupt culture and engage staff to get on board with strategic direction. In the research of Lynn Bosetti and Troy Heffernan, on the emotional labour of leading Australian universities, the issue of faculty incivility was a recurring and concerning theme, before 2020.

University leaders now face even tougher decisions regarding massive restructuring, program rationalisation, and staff redundancy to ensure the long-term sustainability and viability of their institution. They are responsible for engaging staff in forming these strategies and ensuring they understand the intended outcomes. However, such changes, and our platforms for consultation, have always fuelled ideological clashes between academic staff and leaders. Agonistic attacks by tenured academics, aimed at demonstrating shortcomings in leaders’ plans and credibility, are increasingly common.

There should always be space for robust debate in universities. But when it escalates to the point of aggression and uncivilised conduct, it impedes clarity and understanding of issues. It is a barrier to engaging staff in action. The emotional impact of these exchanges has a lingering impact on workplace culture and the wellbeing of staff, students and leaders. It results in low morale, absenteeism, increased health issues, disengagement, early retirement and high staff turnover. Almost half of Australia’s vice-chancellor positions have turned over since the start of 2020.

There is little precedence for other academics to call-out bullying behaviour and uncivilised conduct they see. The stress associated with repeated exposure to intentional acts of micro-aggression can lead to mental and physical health issues and contribute to long-term mental illness. When left unchecked, bullying and incivility becomes part of the accepted norm of an increasingly hostile and toxic work environment.

Emotional labour, in the roles of vice-chancellors and faculty heads, was always tough. We discussed this on the HEDx podcast last week. It arises from how academics behave. This is driven by how academics are trained and develop. It stems from our culture of challenging other points of view, while advancing our own. It now needs new interventions to prevent the emotional labour from reaching breaking point.

Interventions include cultural diagnostics, climate and engagement surveys, and culture shaping activities. They have been widely applied, with success, in other sectors. We can borrow from these examples, and techniques they have spawned, if we learn from others and tailor them well to our sector. It will require us to start to use new KPIs measuring organisational culture, beyond those measuring pursuit of individual achievement. We need to augment h-indices of publication citations and add m- and c- indices that measure mentorship and collaboration, as Professor Margaret Sheil, vice-chancellor of QUT proposed at a recent Clare Burton Memorial Lecture.

We stand on the verge of a leadership and cultural revolution in Australian and global universities. It is all very well ministers saying do this, and vice-chancellors saying do that, but it is the deans and heads of school that are left to determine how to interpret and implement these changing mandates. Their leadership development needs to include a cultural toolkit for the sector to suit the times. Unless we have the culture-shaping tools, and the capability to mitigate incivility and development of toxic cultures, leaders will be unable to shift the institution and effect necessary change.  Dramatic restructuring to disrupt organisational structure and culture is a last-resort step needing accompanying leadership support and cultural expertise.

Now is the time when we all need more support, for the leaders and the led. We need greater civility and shared respect and all to pull together. And we need know-how that is tried and tested to make this happen. HEDx is now working with a number of Australian universities, with its unique cultural toolkit developed for the sector, to ensure that happens in a way that changes higher education for good.


Leave a Reply