By Published On: February 10th, 2021
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As the pandemic’s shockwaves continue to reverberate across the globe, Cubane has been working closely with university leaders across our UniForum member regions in Canada, the UK and Ireland, Australia and New Zealand to understand the enduring impact of the crisis and support the response. We’ll be publishing a series of short articles sharing common themes emerging from these ongoing discussions over the weeks to come.

Most universities quickly moved past the original shock in 2020 of shifting faculty, staff and students to remote settings; made decisions on the delivery of teaching in 2021 (largely online though influenced by region), and have engaged in various forms of scenario planning on how budgets and operations will be impacted in the near future.

The enduring impact of COVID-19 on leading universities

Rather than re-iterate observations around these points (explored extensively elsewhere); we’ll be focusing on how leaders are viewing the medium to longer term impacts of the crisis: the rebuilding, cost containment, difficult decisions and surprising opportunities.

Over the next few weeks we’ll publish four short pieces on how change has taken place and what elements of the change are likely to ‘stick’; and the features that senior leaders should pay attention to as they contemplate future projects at their own institution.

Our discussions with university leaders do not always point to the radical re-alignment of higher education in a ‘post-crisis’ world as many commentators have alluded to. Rather they reveal how change is taking place, what has worked well, the limitations of the current approach, and some of the fundamental capabilities required to sustain momentum.

Readers will see the underlying thread of effective decision making being driven by two basic factors: 1) timely access to good data and 2) a sophisticated understanding of how to engage transparently with the university community.

The articles to follow in the coming weeks are summarised below, and we’d love to hear from you too in terms of your own experiences around the lasting legacy of the pandemic.

Challenging the pace (not the course) of change

Historically universities have been seen as slow-moving tankers requiring tremendous will and sustained effort to change course. As in many parts of society, Covid has forced institutions to challenge their orthodoxies and act quickly in ways that would traditionally require longer consensus building.

What Covid has shown us is that universities can act quickly if and when required. (e.g. IT teams stood up remote platforms within days).

Our discussions revealed that most universities are not (yet) changing course, but simply accelerating or decelerating existing initiatives.

This article will focus on:

How can leadership learn from a new way of engaging with stakeholders to affect the pace of change on campus?

How do honest and transparent conversations supported by organisational data support these initiatives?

Focusing the value proposition

A feature of any crisis is that it brings your values and purpose into crystal clear focus. For higher education, this means an understanding of the core role of the institution in society. Many stakeholders are calling for major transformations to drive more ‘value’ from the system.

Governments are asking how higher education can be delivered more cheaply while contributing more to the labour market in a budget constrained post-Covid world. Technologists will clamour that this is the time for massive online learning and micro-credentialing replacing the degree.

What we found is increasing awareness by leaders of their role in their community. Universities are drivers for the unique strengths of a society. Despite their own budgetary pressures universities have stepped up in donating PPE, funding research, providing volunteers and facilities, and guiding government decision making through expertise.

This article will focus on:

What is the viability of supporting rankings and revenue growth through international student recruitment?

How does an institution differentiate itself when the in-person component is lost?

How important is the role of external engagement when dealing with internal crises?

The limits of ‘all in this together’

2020 saw a remarkable rallying across institutions to make remote learning work. Academics, teaching design staff, IT teams and others came together with impressive speed and coordination to complete the move to online learning. This cooperation continues as faculties and departments look to provide a more “polished” online product for upcoming academic terms.

However, how long will this spirit last as universities are challenged to make tough decisions in the face of impending budget cuts? How will faculties react to perceived inequalities in how cuts are distributed? Will the cultural inertia of the past return or is there truly an appetite for continued sacrifice; in the hope that institutions emerge stronger in the long run?

This article will focus on:

How can campus community engagement be sustained in a positive way through the bad news of cuts?

What strategies exist to fill resourcing gaps while creating shared experiences?

Data as a strategic asset

Leaders consistently mentioned that their investment in good systems and good data have never paid off more than now. Instead of flying blind, those with the ability to make data available quickly and accurately were much more focused in their decision making for both the short and longer term.

Good data, shared broadly, also allows management from across the university to take ownership and accountability for managing their own areas through the crises (e.g. good student data allows for rapid and effective student engagement, staff and position data allows quick re-deployment where required). The data is also crucial to now evaluating scenarios being driven by the longer term financial impacts of Covid.

This article will focus on:

How can data as a tool be used to enable more rapid and decentralized decision making?

How can leaders engage broadly across the institution to extract the most value from their data investments?

About the Author: Haseeb Kamal

Haseeb is the Managing Director of Cubane in Canada and has spent over 10 years advising clients in the education sector including K-12 and Higher Education. Prior to joining Cubane, Haseeb was a leader in Deloitte's Higher Education practice working with clients across a wide range of topics including student experience, registrar, finance, and HR process re-design, operating and service delivery model refreshes, IT strategy and business cases. He has worked with numerous colleges and Universities across Canada advising clients at the C-Suite level. In addition to Higher Education, Haseeb has also worked across numerous public sector organizations including municipal, healthcare, justice, and transportation. He also built expertise across multiple advisory and implementation domains including Robotics Process Automation, Enterprise Risk Management, and internal Audit. Haseeb is a qualified Chartered Accountant and Lean Six Sigma Green Belt. To contact Haseeb please email [email protected]
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