University Strategy | Your questions answered
Key questions raised during our recent Leeds conversations events – held to launch the University’s new strategy – are answered here.
Our new strategy – Universal Values, Global Change – sets out our ambitions to build a thriving community and a collaborative culture to make an impact locally and globally in the areas of research and innovation, student education, digital transformation and international.
Two Leeds conversation events were held in February to launch the strategy. Both proved extremely popular, with colleagues asking many insightful questions, some of which couldn’t be answered on the day.
Here, our deputy vice-chancellors provide answers to some of those questions, which we’ve grouped under common themes: culture and values; equality and inclusion; organisation; workload, development and challenges; and evaluation.
Culture and values
How can we ensure cultural change is effective and that colleagues, at all levels of the organisation, have the skills and capabilities to lead change?
Our ability to deliver change at scale and pace will be critical if we’re to achieve the ambition within the strategy. In recent years, through our investment in major change programmes, we’ve established broad-based professional change capabilities, and we intend to build on, evolve and extend these to deliver the new strategy. At the same time, we will also consider how we can create the conditions, and build the confidence and capabilities, that enable our community to embrace change and the opportunities it provides. A priority of the Enabling Strategy is to refine our approach to leadership. If our leaders are equipped and empowered to deliver effective cultural change, then we can build confidence and capability at all levels of the organisation.
In the spirit of collaboration and culture, you’ve indicated there is to be a ‘levelling up’ between research and teaching and academic and professional staff. What does that actually mean in practice? How will you achieve this?
There are a number of ways in which the strategy aims to achieve this. We will optimally align the organisation to identify and develop options to address structural barriers to collaboration and to enhance the integration between research and student education. The identification of strategic research institutes/centres, with a clear vision to integrate research and innovation, student education and knowledge exchange, will be a key enabler in ensuring an equal partnership between research and education. The partnership between academic and professional services staff is key and we will ensure an emphasis on integration and collaboration across academic and service boundaries. We also intend to refresh the career pathways and career development opportunities available to colleagues and to ensure that our staff recognition, reward and benefits schemes reflects parity of esteem across our community. Our focus throughout will be on cultivating an inclusive, collaborative and mutually respectful environment within which to work.
The university values are stated as professionalism, inclusiveness, integrity and community. How do these fit with the themes of community, culture and impact? Does one replace the other?
As the University values were last updated in 2005, we intend to refresh these during the coming months, through consultation, with a focus on fully aligning them with the new strategy and our strategic principles of community, culture, impact and our developing Equality, Diversity and Inclusion strategy.
How do you see the role of teaching fellows in collaborating in research and innovation in their scholarly work?
A clear part of the new strategy is further integrating our student education, research and innovation, and knowledge exchange activities. All staff will need to buy into this vision and help to deliver it – and I [Professor Nick Plant] challenge all my colleagues to think of ways in which they can contribute. This might be through scholarship, through the co-design and delivery of outreach, public engagement, knowledge exchange etc. It is critical that we value the contribution all colleagues across the University (and beyond) can bring, as this diversity of knowledge and experience will help us produce the most impactful activities.
The digital strategy is ambitious but its focus seems to be on education delivery, and helping staff adopt it. Could it be useful to explore what staff need in terms of the education and research digital technology and support, to ensure maximum impact of research-informed outputs, such as public-facing resources and tracing.
The Digital Transformation Strategy is cross-cutting – it’s equally focused on research, education and business operations. We have a number of projects and initiatives planned to enhance the research lifecycle through effective use of digital technologies, data and digital approaches, including more external dissemination of our research outcomes, to support impact activities
In line with support for postgraduate researchers … what about support for post-docs and early career researchers?
To me [Professor Nick Plant], postgraduate researchers, postdoctoral research assistants, postdoctoral research fellows and early career academics are all early career researchers! It’s important that we think of this as a journey, supporting the key transition points between roles, rather than just supporting each group in isolation. We must also remember this pathway is not linear, and there are multiple exit points. We must develop a culture and environment where our staff can experience different career directions (e.g. entrepreneurial, government, industrial, academic, non-governmental organisations etc.), providing them with the support and confidence to follow their ambitions.
Are we moving towards open-ended research posts rather than a culture of short-term posts to reach objective one [Support our researchers and research staff across their entire careers to help them achieve their full potential, and deliver fundamental and challenge-led research that will shape our future world]?
We must create a culture and environment where staff feel secure and valued in their roles and can fully contribute to the University mission. The University cannot do this alone, but must work across the sector with other universities, and with Government and funders. I would like to see our University leading the way here, championing the development of a valued, diverse researcher base, who feel they have a clear career trajectory.
Equality and inclusion
Given the personal pressures faced by all staff during covid, which studies are showing have had a disproportionately negative effect on women’s career prospects in academia (less publications etc.), how do we ensure equality of opportunities for all staff during the next few years?
An Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Strategy is currently in development and, enabled by the appointment of two part-time Deans of EDI, we’re committed to embedding EDI across our values, culture and practice. Our intention is to make EDI part of the fabric of the University.
In relation to enhancing our commitment to widening participation and developing student-centred pedagogy, does this include consideration around our mature student community? Is this a cohort the strategy aims to grow?
The mature student community is absolutely part of our commitment to widening participation. Our immediate priority is to address the challenge that our mature learners currently have lower continuation rates and face awarding gaps compared to young students.
What concrete steps will the University take to widen access for students from under-represented backgrounds and what plans are being made about developing an admissions policy and staff expertise to achieve this?
We’ve developed an Access and Student Success Strategy that is a key enabler for these elements of the Student Education strategy.
I’m really pleased to see the move towards consulting external stakeholders in the research (e.g. the challenges we should focus on) and student education areas (e.g. the curriculum project). How can we ensure the equality and diversity agenda feeds into these consultations, so that all voices are heard and not just the usual ones?
The point about consulting with a wide and diverse range of stakeholders is an important one. There are many ways of making sure this happens, such as ensuring diverse membership of external advisory boards and monitoring the range of external organisations we engage with to ensure they’re fully reflective of society. In addition to these actions, we welcome further suggestions from colleagues.
Will the various heads of faculties and services be considering these objectives and speaking to their teams about how we’re all going to move forwards to achieve these/embed these in our work?
The governance structure for strategy implementation will include a workstream dedicated to leading the approach to communications and engagement. This workstream will work closely with University leaders to ensure the strategy and delivery plan are translated and communicated in a meaningful way, enabling staff across our community to understand how their role and work is contributing to the achievement of our strategic ambition.
The strategic aims of collaboration and of consistent quality in student education are undermined by the resource-centred system of an internal economy which fosters competition and inequalities – rich schools can afford to do things in research and student education that poor schools cannot. How will our strategy address this contradiction between a neo-liberal form of organisation and universal values?
In recent years, we’ve made several important structural changes that have moved us significantly away from the scenario that the question implies. These include the single management structure for professional services to ensure consistent levels of provision for all, and the move towards financial accountability at faculty rather than school level. By developing a shared vision for the strategy in student education and a common approach to the ways in which programmes are structured, we will further encourage collaboration between schools.
It’s interesting to hear that you recognise that some of the University’s bureaucracy can hinder research and gaining funding. What aspects of the current system can be changed to make it easier for a researcher to get their idea submitted?
This is a very challenging area, and one that’s not unique to Leeds. As systems and processes evolve in large organisations, they can become increasingly good at one thing, but worse at others. For example, many of our administrative systems are designed to support and work within the established faculty administrative structure. However, when we then try to work across faculties in interdisciplinary teams, these very systems become a challenge. As a case in point, RIS and finance are actively working with our large interdisciplinary research centres and institutes to see how best to support their cross-faculty activities, ensuring they can both feed into strategic decision making and can work more easily across disciplines (e.g. cross-faculty postgraduate researchers, grant bidding, equipment housing etc.).
Don’t you think digital transformation needs to be community based? In my experience, I like to work closely with a local (school-based) IT and educational enhancement and innovation team. Digital transformation works better when you build on good human relationships. So, will the centralisation of IT and related services be stopped and ‘devolution’ practiced instead? Will the local IT teams rebuild and local enhancement and innovation teams be kept?
We recognise the need to find an appropriate balance between efficient, effective processes and structures for support, and the human desire to work with known individuals in local contexts. We have been successful with this ‘hub and spoke’ approach in some areas, and we need to learn from this and emulate it across all of our services. We’re committed to providing high-quality support, but also to doing so efficiently – we need to make best use of standardised approaches, wherever suitable, as they allow us to deliver at scale, re-use knowledge, products and experience, and respond to change effectively. However, we also recognise the need for colleagues to be able to work with professional service colleagues with local, contextual knowledge.
How will digital transformation unfold with regard to research computing and IT, as currently there is a disjuncture between centralised IT and local research computing and IT needs?
We recognise the need for specialised research IT support that sits alongside the core IT support for day-to-day activities. We will be working with Research and Innovation Services and the IT Service to develop a research IT strategy, in partnership with specialised research IT users – this work is getting started now and will help us to define our specialised research IT support.
Following the comment about a University without borders, internally, and removing barriers and form-filling, are there any plans to reorganise the way research support is provided?
To better support our research, we want to achieve two things: First, to share best practice and remove inefficiencies; second, to move toward a ‘cradle to grave’ support mechanism that integrates different aspects of the research lifecycle (stakeholder engagement, grant bidding, grant setup, research delivery and impact delivery). This will require multiple services, at both the faculty and central level, to identify how to best work together, to create a more seamless research project journey.
Workload, development and challenges
There’s clearly a lot of work to do. How will we ensure that efforts are prioritised? There’s a risk that much of this will fall upon the same roles in the University. How will we ensure work is prioritised and colleagues aren’t at risk of being burnt out whilst our day-to-day work also continues amongst all the change?
The strategy reflects our ambition during the next decade to 2030, and the delivery plans will articulate where the focus of our efforts will be during the next five years. The appropriate governance bodies will assess and prioritise all the actions within the delivery plan and, within the context of the finances available, additional activities will be resourced accordingly.
How is the University dealing with the tensions between international, digitalisation/digital online expansion and sustainability – e.g. the increased carbon footprint? Has the University anything in place to mitigate against this?
We’re mindful of the tension between our international ambition and climate commitments, but we’re committed to delivering an international strategy that is aligned with our institutional commitment to developing a sustainable and low-carbon future, as outlined in our Climate Principles. This approach will be detailed further in the Enabling Strategy. We expect to capitalise on the current accelerated pace of digital adoption and to use digital technologies more extensively and creatively as part of the solution.
How will additional training, creation of new teaching methodologies and new digital courses all be done when staff are generally overloaded with day-to-day delivery of teaching and research? How will change be prioritised – investment in time and resources is needed for change to be successful?
The appropriate governance bodies will assess and prioritise all the actions within the delivery plan and, within the context of the financial envelope available, additional activities will be resourced accordingly. Investment in digital transformation, curriculum enhancement and a refresh of organisational structures and operating models will deliver efficiencies, which will help ease the burden on staff.
Does the digital strategy take into consideration staff concerns and suggestions about embedding inclusive baseline standards and digital poverty, as well as staff workload?
This issue is at the heart of the new University strategy, and the digital transformation and student education strategies. We’re strongly committed to ensuring our students have access to a flexible and inclusive educational experience, irrespective of background or circumstances, and that means ensuring we remove all barriers – including barriers created by lack of access to devices, Internet access or insufficient digital literacy. We also recognise that creating and delivering flexible, inclusive teaching and learning requires time for staff to gain professional development, and time to develop materials. These are also priorities that we’ve detailed within the Digital Transformation Strategy.
Does the digital strategy provide an overview of the work needed in improving processing, systems and data and when will these start to be implemented?
We recognise the need to improve our core technology and data infrastructure and use these to improve our processes. This work has already started and is ongoing. It will take time to deliver benefits to end-users but we’re moving in the right direction and at pace.
The strategy makes references to the ‘Frontiers Institute’ and also alludes to investing in a small number of research areas/centres of research excellence. Could you talk a bit about which specific areas these are, how they feed into the Frontiers Institute and who is at the forefront of this initiative?
The Frontiers Institute has been co-designed during the past 18 months to serve as a cross-cutting complement to existing institutes. It will provide a global platform that uses digital technologies to connect to worldwide audiences of researchers, policymakers, businesses, third-sector organisations and the general public. The Frontiers Institute’s distinct focus will be on emerging challenge topics and global partnerships, supporting high-risk, high-return Frontiers thinking. It will also support career pathways and research culture through a global academy of early- and mid-career researchers. We envisage that as challenge areas mature, other institutes will take them forward, allowing the Frontiers Institute to remain agile and proactive in shaping emergent global research and innovation communities. As for timing, we’re in the final stages of planning for the Frontiers Institute launch.
I really like the emphasis on Sustainable Development Goals at the beginning of the written strategy. I am slightly surprised that this has not really been mentioned today. Could you say a little bit more about how they will genuinely influence what we do at Leeds?
The new strategy clearly sets out a vision where we will address major global challenges, helping to reduce inequalities and shape our future world for the better. The SDGs act as a clear, external articulation of these global challenges and we’re proud to be working toward them. Indeed, the University ranked third in the UK (11th in the world) for the inaugural THE Impact Awards, which use the SDGs as their criteria. We will continue to monitor how our activities across student education, knowledge exchange, and research and innovation align with the SDGs, and this will help shape the strategic decisions that we make as we deliver the new strategy.
What does the deputy vice-chancellor mean by staff training to ‘engage internationally’?
The international strand of the strategy aims to foster an international mindset throughout the University across all our activity. The delivery plan for achieving this is detailed under 4.1 of the International Strategy, and includes the following actions:
- Promoting culture change to support, recognise and reward international activity, which delivers positive impact, locally, nationally and globally.
- Delivering an inclusive and intercultural student experience underpinned by effective staff training to facilitate whole cohort integration, belonging and community building.
- Increasing institutional capacity to identify, scope and undertake major internationally collaborative projects, including key research and educational partnerships with the Global South.
- Harnessing the insights, networks and influence of our global alumni to enhance our impact and grow the philanthropy that will help underpin our ambitions.
What do you think are the most effective measures/strategies that can best support researchers to thrive and reach their full professional potential? I ask as a mid-career academic from a ‘non-traditional’ background. I truly believe that academia needs people like me, but I’m not sure it always ‘sees’ us.
That is a big question, but a really important one! The first thing we need to do is to recognise the value that diversity brings. Whether this is gender, ethnicity, professional background etc., the more inclusive we are, the more productive we will be. Only by embracing the different thought processes, viewpoints, expertise etc. that come with this diversity, will we be able to address the major challenges facing our world today. The first strand of the research and innovation strategic delivery plan is around ‘People and Culture’, to recognise how important it is that we support our staff throughout their careers.
How serious is the loss of Erasmus+ to the strategy as outlined?
Whilst the Government has withdrawn from the Erasmus+ programme, the impact of the pandemic has led to a substantial reduction in mobility opportunities in 2020/21. This means that the University is able to use its underspent allocation to support as much EU student mobility as possible in 2021/22. The loss of Erasmus+ funding does not equate to the wholesale cessation of European partnerships and agreements. The University will still maintain and develop mutually beneficial reciprocal exchanges. Applications are now open for the Turing Scheme, the new Government alternative to Erasmus+. Turing funding is global rather than European focussed and has a strong focus on widening participation. The scheme is initially funded for one year (September 2021 to August 2022). Whilst we don’t know the level of grant we will receive, it will be important for us to demonstrate the value the funding can add to our international partnerships and the impact on participants. Unlike Erasmus+, Turing funding is not reciprocal, so we will need to work with our European and global partners to promote Leeds as an attractive destination for incoming study abroad.
The determination of the VC that we should develop our own benchmarks of quality and achievement is very welcome. But does she not envisage a collision between that objective and the demands of the REF and TEF?
First and foremost, we must ensure that we’re measuring our progress and success in a way that is meaningful to us and our strategic ambition. Consequently, we would expect the achievement of our strategic ambition to flow through into positive REF, TEF and wider league table outcomes.
Really helpful to hear Simone’s perspective on rankings. I think the focus was on the impact of research on rankings. Education also has a significant impact on the UK league tables. If we take high-quality (AAB/ABB) students, we’re more likely to be higher up the UK league tables. Is the intention to continue the focus on AAB/ABB students? Or are we now less concerned about this? If we take ‘lower quality’ students, we will fall down the UK league tables. Are we still concerned about this?
Our strategy will continue to be driven by the goal to recruit those students most able to benefit from the opportunities of the Leeds education experience. We don’t anticipate this leading to changes in our entry requirements, but we will continue to pursue ambitious targets for recruitment and retention of students from groups that we know are underrepresented in Higher Education in the UK.