Controlling the evolving social DNA of higher education

Professor Odeh Al-Jayyousi
Professor Odeh Al-Jayyousi
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The metaphor we live by shapes our images of the future. Whether one sees a university as a “castle” or a “ship”; a “factory” or a “shop” tells a different narrative about the future of higher education. The discourse of transformation and disruptive change or reform in higher education is on the agenda for educators and policy makers worldwide. However, conventional wisdom captures the essence of change leadership in higher education institutions, i.e., “if you want to bring about genuine change in any organization, change organizational culture.”

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During the 20th century, the mandate of university had shifted from creating knowledge and graduating thinkers to graduating technocrats, technicians, and developing patents and commercializing R&D outcomes. The drivers for an entrepreneurial university model were underpinned by limited public funding to higher education. Hence, new business model innovations for higher education emerged to cope with market needs, globalization, and technological disruption to ensure open and sustainable higher education.

How can universities move away from a “factory” model and prepare students for uncertain futures? Many thinkers argue that the conventional university is likely to be reformed, i.e., acquisition and creation of knowledge will not be the focus since the mandate of higher education institutions will be mainly to provide an ecosystem collaboration and co-creation of new ideas across disciplines and sectors. Innovative workspace and culture that foster argumentation, policy debate, critical thinking, foresight, and social dialogue are key attributes for higher education institutions.

The key question is how to instill a culture of change in higher education institutions. Institutional inertia is a characteristic of higher educational institutions, but many policy makers do realize the imperative and value for change. Empirical evidence had shown that top-down managers can impose ideas that initially appear to be working but later they cause spillover effects and negative outcomes like driving away some of the most competent faculty and strategic partners.

Besides, research showed that a recipe for change includes a shift in mindset and culture which implies change in how education leaders approach challenges, build teams, and set strategic directions. In a nutshell, a transformation in higher education is underpinned by refocusing attention toward people and processes rather than outcomes and metrics. This change implies embracing organic academic leadership through re-imagining universities as a natural ecosystem or a garden that needs to be nurtured to promote innovation, collective learning, and excellence.

A common mistake made in higher education is to adopt business or corporate key performance indicators (KPIs) to academic institutions to monitor and measure success. Paradoxically, in business, the core focus is for profit maximization or shareholder value, and all personnel are expected to coordinate purposeful efforts to achieve targets and milestones. While in academia the metrics for progress are different. The focus is on excellence in education, inclusive and open innovation, lifelong learning, student retention, credit hour production, graduation rates, community service, global leadership, and academic rankings.

Key enablers for sustainable universities, according to Chronicle of Higher Education include setting sound collaborative governance where faculty members participate in decision making and foresight; compensation and benefits that ensure tenure system and pair pay; diversity to promote cultural fusion and social cohesion; job satisfaction that is reflected in realizing that teaching is a mission that creates public value and balanced life; respect and appreciation where employees are recognized for their contributions; and learning environment where academic institutions recognize and reward excellence and innovations.

Climate or morale surveys are vital for creating an agile culture of innovation. They also indicate why traditional strategic planning processes yield limited results, since obsession with the standard metrics, targets, and KPIs can limit key capabilities of universities to address root causes and systemic weaknesses. Educators should phase out traditional strategic planning in favor of setting more flexible strategic KPIs. They need to devote energy toward creating a culture of innovation by focusing on people and processes, not by overemphasizing outcomes.

Re-imagining the future university is critical to co-develop a new social DNA and mandate to cope with complexity and uncertainty. Higher education institutions need to become proactive and far more interdisciplinary to utilize intellectual capital in diaspora and design and deliver solutions to major challenges like poverty, climate change and the water-energy-food nexus. New research and learning paradigms need to be adopted to enhance action and experiential learning, harnessing on-demand and peer-to-peer learning provision through use of massive online open courses (MOOCs), social media and synergy between industry and university.

Simply put, a university is not an assembly line in a factory or a machine that produces graduates or degrees. Guided by system thinking, improving innovation performance implies the need to improve the culture and processes that produce the outcome. Since change is produced by people, prior to introducing a change, education leaders should critically examine their institutions, construct a solid business case for change that is evidence-based, and communicate clear messages.

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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