My week - 21 October 2013 - Strategic listening and responsiveness

Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor John Fisher reflects on discussions within the EPSRC, Annual School Academic Performance Review Meetings, and research at Leeds.

Professor John Fisher

This week I attended the quarterly Engineering and Physical Science Research Council (EPSRC) meeting in London – I’ve been a Council member since 2010.  In addition to the normal quarterly business, we held an open forum to meet the EPSRC community and stakeholders and discuss strategies and policies. This is the first time that we’ve held an open forum and the plenary sessions were broadcast live over the web. The EPSRC community extends to over 10,000 stakeholders and, while there is extensive dialogue between EPSRC with key individuals in universities and strategic partners, the forum was intended also to engage with investigators, early career researchers and research support staff.

The topics and questions covered were wide-ranging and included cross-disciplinary issues, training, opportunities for early career researchers, gender balance and diversity, academic leadership, funding and sponsorship and the strategic shape of the portfolio. The forum re-emphasised the need for the Council and EPSRC to communicate more effectively with the community and stakeholders. While the EPSRC website contains an enormous amount of information on strategies and policies, that isn’t sufficient – the academic community expects a dialogue, two-way communication and evidence of strategic listening and responsiveness from the EPSRC Council.  

This week we’ve also been continuing with our Annual School Academic Performance Review meetings. In all meetings we’ve been discussing student education and the National Student Survey (NSS) results. As always feedback to student is an important area for improvement in NSS. The quality of our feedback, not only includes feedback to students on their individual work but also general engagement and feedback about the programmes of studies and modules. Some schools are demonstrating that this dialogue, strategic listening and responsiveness provide an excellent approach which results in continuous improvement of quality. If I’m permitted to use an engineering systems analogy, this type of ‘closed loop feedback’ is frequently used in the control of quality and performance of critical systems!

The School meetings have also given us the opportunity to discuss future research strategies and plans. The Research Excellence Framework (REF) submissions, though primarily a retrospective exercise, also provide the opportunity for Schools to make some initial statements about their future research plans. As we move beyond the date for our REF submission, it’s timely to consider developing more ambitious academic research strategies and plans for the next seven years. The University strategy map provides a framework for strategy development, but many of the future opportunities and growth will come from the ambitions and plans from individual Schools. In some School meetings we started to have some rich discussions and, in strategic listening and responsive mode, we are able to provide guidance on the opportunities in the external environment and also where we envisage cross-disciplinary, cross-Faculty working.

Our research success in the next seven years will require us to build on our distinctive academic strengths in research and education and to align these – often in collaborative ventures – to the major external opportunities and global challenges. This is easy to say and not always easy to deliver! New academic colleagues joining us at Leeds often comment on the breadth of our academic disciplines and our distinctive cross-disciplinary collaborative culture. Our challenge as academic leaders is to listen and respond to the academic opportunities as they are developed and articulated by the academic community, strategically supporting the key distinctive opportunities aligned to global challenges that will deliver world-leading excellence and an international reputation for the University of Leeds.


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