Can the HE sector address the issue of impact for the future REF?


Kim Ansell, considers how thinking about research and teaching is a leadership issue and a path to achieving resilient impact.

The jury is out on the question of whether higher education is having an impact on our economy, our industries, and employability of our graduates. To assess impact from a broad versus narrow, international versus local and internal versus external are just some of the current deliberations which HEFCE need to consider and which the HE community need to respond on.  Matthew Guest’s article sums up the debate on this issue in relation to the REF.

Only a few weeks ago David Morris was also asking the question can a university excel both in teaching and in research, with an interesting comparison to the banking sector.

For me, having spent much of my early career treading the fine line between making academic research palatable and valuable for practice, while still meeting the needs of the academic community for rigour and reputation. I feel sure that there is a link worth pursuing if we are to achieve that nirvana of excellent teaching and academic rankings.

My experience suggests that separation of teaching and research is just the tip of the iceberg, and the underlying culture of a non-holistic approach to work is a hidden trap which has implications for staff to be able to thrive, collaborate and to ensure that research inspires and enriches teaching, so that students benefit from learning in a research rich culture.  The separation extends from issues such as contracts, right through to strategy, performance measurement/management, reward and recognition, and leadership.

Like the RAE before it, the REF is grappling with how much and what type of impact it should assess, how it should be articulated and what emphasis it should get in the great scheme of things.  I agree with Matthew, that “REF proposals around impact do not go far enough. They do not provide enough of an incentive for institutions to address such challenges …” If HEFCE decide to be brave about this it could very well solve some wider issues.

I have no doubt that HEFCE would welcome input from University leaders on this issue and my call to action is just that. Rod Bristow, president of Pearson UK, quite rightly asserts that “At its best, higher education provides cognitive and practical skills that help our young people and our economy to thrive”. The Leadership Foundation has done work on the Impact of Leadership, Governance and Management, analysing REF 2014 case studies and there is currently no incentive for academics to evaluate internal interventions as they are not counted for impact. There are many ways this could apply, not least in the ‘research environment’, engagement of undergraduates in civic activities, or interdisciplinary opportunities.  So my “call to action” is that universities respond on this issue and look for rules to be changed to include research impact in the academy as well as beyond in wider society.  This way institutions will start to recognise and reward research that is directed at improvement of institutional teaching practice.

Understandably HEFCE is focussed on implementation of the REF, issues such as whether previous submissions can be re-submitted where there is further impact to demonstrate from older research, whether creating an exhibition catalogue from your research is admissible to demonstrate impact, how incoming grants will be assessed, what ‘open access’ really means.

While concerns have already been raised with Hefce on such implementation and operational issues, I wonder how many senior leaders have engaged with this at a strategic level.  Of course universities are equally concerned about submission clarity, criteria and weightings, but is it time for the leadership teams in universities to take a step back and think about their own strategic aims and ambitions? Is it time for the sector to determine how it should be assessed and demonstrate exactly how higher education has an impact on young people and the economy?

How can universities responding to the consultation from a strategic perspective make sure that they can demonstrate diverse outcomes from their research programmes, not just outputs in the narrow sense?  Surely one way is to demonstrate that their valuable research is being used in its teaching and helping graduates to be leading edge as they enter the workforce.  Surely it is showing how its own alumni are taking the learning from research and changing the economy, changing the outcomes of medical intervention, business practice or technological development.

As David Morris reminds us, asking how research and teaching can be more symbiotic assumes that it is a co-dependent relationship. Evidence shows that research and teaching only improve each other in certain circumstances, but in this time of increasing student expectations and the need to demonstrate value, isn’t it the duty of university leaders to ensure that their infrastructure, strategy and policy making enables this to happen and furthermore is it not their responsibility to ensure that it does not drift further apart?

The Leadership Foundation can provide practical solutions and facilitation to design strategies which embrace research and teaching. We also support institutions with staff development and performance measurement strategies that recognise flexible career pathways.  Teaching quality and research excellence are not operational issues and the sooner universities can harness their assets in a more strategic way the better informed the REF will be and the more “impact” UK higher education will continue to have on the world.

Kim Ansell, is the managing consultant at the Leadership Foundation, a specialist in professional membership organisations and higher education she advices on strategic transformation interventions.  

Up for a challenge: self-directed group learning for leaders


If our role as educators of adults is to enhance their capacity for self-directed learning, how does that apply to leadership development training? Doug Parkin, director of the Leadership Foundation’s Future Professional Directors programme, reflects on his experience of designing transformational self-directed group learning activities for leaders.

From work with a thousand students in a thousand lecture halls, we all know how easy it can be to leave learning at the classroom door. The lesson may have been interesting, insightful, even entertaining – but if nothing changes in the learner, their thinking, action or beliefs, then was it learning at all?  Consider the difference between these two statements:

  • I taught them how to tie their shoes, but they still can’t do it!
  • I helped them learn how to tie their shoes and they’ve been doing it ever since.

There is a fascinating idea from social development theory that it is the appreciation, use and application of something by another that gives it true definition. So, if they “still can’t” tie their shoes, then was it really teaching?

Leadership development needs to be transformational in its impact. Whether that is a complete reinvention by someone of their identity as a leader, arising from intense self-reflection, or a new perspective on just one aspect of how to lead, the transformation needs to be fully committed and sustainable. A multi-faceted, experiential learning environment is the basis for such transformations, combining variety, examples, appropriate models, challenging experiences, reflection, individualised feedback, strong opportunities for professional and social exchange, and, critically, opportunities for self-directed learning.

When we designed the Future Professional Directors (FPD) programme we set ourselves the goal of including, among a variety of innovative elements, an entirely self-directed group activity.  We came up with Challenge Groups: groups of three or four participants from different higher education institutions working together on a common area of leadership challenge. Step one would involve each Challenge Group identifying a question of high current relevance to all group members that could become the basis for an active enquiry process. The Challenge Groups would then work independently alongside the eight months of the programme itself to explore the question from multiple perspectives using their own institutional contexts as a resource, and also looking more widely, possibly at other sectors. While we did not have a formal assessment mechanism, we built in the use of feedback. This came from tutors on the original question and proposal (including a tailored stimulus webinar for each group), from peers through a mid-point review, and then from peers and tutors through online comments on the finished work.

As part of their application to join the FPD programme, all participants were asked to identify three leadership challenges: a people challenge, a change challenge and a stakeholder challenge. The information provided formed the basis for deciding the Challenge Groups, clustering participants so far as we could around common themes or areas of interest. It was then a delight to see the questions which emerged as the groups identified their area for shared, collaborative enquiry.

Three of the areas explored by the first cohort of FPD included:

  • Leading potential and performance – particularly the difference between leading performance and managing performance, and the role of personal inspiration.
  • Achieving common goals with influential stakeholders where there may be conflicting priorities – and developing as part of this a model of influence specifically tailored for the higher education context and its values.
  • How to achieve change through a collaborative approach – based on survey responses, a set of overarching recommendations were produced for collaborative, cross-boundary leadership.

Other groups looked at the role of trust and values in authentic leadership, developing a template communication strategy for leading change, and managing the needs of diverse stakeholders through complex change.

As well as the impressive outputs, and the sharing of these, we also invited participants to reflect on the process of engaging in the Challenge Group activity, particularly the group development, the sharing of leadership, and the cross-institutional/cross-service working.  These reflections showed how strongly participants had valued sharing different perspectives, building relationships, working through the uncertainty of defining the task, seeing roles and strengths emerge, and the opportunity for independent working and research.  There was also high value in delivering a tangible outcome, with both group and individual benefits firmly linked to real work-based leadership challenges.

Through self-direction, within the framework of a fully supported programme, the participants found a new gateway to both personal discovery and lasting professional friendships.

In his ambitious model of Vertical Leadership Development, Nick Petrie argues for the importance of ‘colliding perspectives’ (the who), ‘heat experiences’ (the what) and ‘elevated sensemaking’ (the how), and it was rewarding to see how some of the FPD Challenge Group work, alongside other experiential elements on FPD such as live case studies, business simulations and strategic dialogues, went a long way towards achieving this.  As Malcolm Gladwell powerfully observed “we learn by example and by direct experience because there are real limits to the adequacy of verbal instruction”.

As the quote below highlights, one of the other clear benefits of an extended leadership programme with a variety of types of learner engagement, including significant self-directed elements and action learning, is the relationships that form, with a life beyond the programme itself.

“The Future Professional Directors programme content and people were amazing and challenging. Having so many like-minded people in one room gave us the ability to talk freely and openly about the opportunities and challenges we face in the sector. We will remain a close network for years to come. With its mix of presentations, live case studies and visiting externals from academic and professional services, the programme gave us personal confidence and practical insight into what it takes to be an authentic leader in our large complex organisations in the 21st century.”

Chris Parry, University of Nottingham, head of global IT change delivery – academic portfolio

Doug Parkin is programme director of Future Professional Directors, working alongside Tracy Bell Reeves, both at the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education. Doug is also the author of ‘Leading Learning and Teaching in Higher Education: The key guide to designing and delivering courses’.  The book explores contemporary ideas on leadership, engagement and student learning into a practical solutions-based resource designed for those undertaking the challenge of leading a university-level teaching module, programme or suite of programmes, particularly through periods of transformation or change. 

Find out more: Future Professional Directors