From Kazakhstan to Myanmar: building capacity in higher education internationally

The Leadership Foundation has led or participated in higher education development projects in more than 30 countries in Asia, Africa, North and South America, Europe and the Middle East. What have we learnt about the common challenges that have to be overcome to build capacity in the countries in which we work?

Andy Shenstone, the Leadership Foundation’s director of consultancy, shares his experience of co-designing solutions to wicked issues in higher education systems around the world.

The Leadership Foundation’s international work takes place within a vibrant higher education environment and contributes explicitly to multiple UK higher education sector-wide objectives. These objectives include those of the UUKi, which aim to create opportunities for UK Higher Education Institutions to establish new relationships with overseas providers and the promotion of UK higher education internationally. It also addresses the governments expressed priority as regards to enhancing the international standing of UK higher education. Finally, the Leadership Foundation is committed to supporting the development of more robust and autonomous higher education systems in overseas nations including contributing to the wider UK government agenda of supporting capacity-building as a key plank of overseas development through the Newton fund and other programmes.

Each country we’ve worked with has had very different characteristics – which is perhaps not surprising if you consider that we’ve worked in countries as diverse as Kazakhstan, Myanmar and Egypt. Yet, there are still some fundamental similarities in the challenges these countries face, and how we work together to overcome them.

The first challenge is that, generally, higher education provision is underdeveloped. Typically, it has been managed through command and control mechanisms, through government diktat and tight management. That manifests in ways that those of us familiar with the UK system would find very difficult to comprehend. For example, in Egypt, principals or vice-chancellors have virtually no discretion over who to appoint and certainly no capacity or capability to let anyone go or dismiss staff for poor performance. In Myanmar, any significant leader in an institution is forcibly rotated to anywhere in the country every three years, with no choice over where they are sent, regardless of their seniority. In the Ukraine, the direction of travel is moving away from a Soviet-era command and control model to one which is more reminiscent of western and UK models of institutional autonomy but, of course, it will take quite a significant time to make that journey.

Leadership capability
Generally speaking, we find that our clients in overseas countries want to enhance the leadership and management capability of university leadership. Allied to that, there is a keen interest in establishing resilient and sustainable processes for identifying and supporting a pipeline of future leaders – succession planning. Inevitably, if you are the leader of a university and have achieved that position of seniority by dint of your approach under the existing model of governance and politics, that may well mean that you are, perhaps, ill-equipped to be an effective leader in the future when the political and social environment is going to change, potentially quite significantly. That places particular demands on you to develop your skills and capabilities. That isn’t to say such change isn’t possible, but it can be demanding and, of course, longer term, simply focusing on those who are in roles already misses the point. That is, to build capacity to bring forward future leaders who have the skills, capabilities, attitudes and insights that their countries need to develop and modernise their higher education systems. That’s what we’re in the business of doing.

Legislative framework
Another key challenge in global higher education, for a number of countries, is that while they aspire to modernise higher education leadership, governance, and management, the legislative framework (which establishes the boundaries of what is or is not possible under the terms of the law) often takes quite a long time to change. So while there’s a need to develop individuals and direct the travel of leadership in a way which may well speak to an agenda of greater institutional autonomy – and support institutional leaders to develop their own strategies – they have to feel that they’ve got permission to do that. They’ve got to feel safe to do that. They’ve got to feel that the system at large is providing them with the framework within which they can operate.

Take Myanmar. Up until very recently if you said or did the ‘wrong thing’, the impact on you personally could be very significant. That included speaking out and having any ideas of your own that were not acceptable to the military junta that ruled the country for over 40 years. It therefore takes a significant amount of bravery to start behaving outside the norms of those practices. Individuals, naturally, will be very cautious. Having some confidence in the integrity of a redesigned legal framework, which empowers them to behave differently but is also respected by the government and powers that be, is crucial. One of the challenges we face is ensuring that the ambition of change is aligned with those national structures and legal systems, because if they don’t develop hand in hand, you end up with major tensions arising and a real risk of disconnect.

Finance
The other key challenge facing global higher education is finance – how it is all paid for. Budgets are under significant pressure. Where you have challenges around education provision in developing, or even middle income, countries, primary care and schooling are often prioritised and higher education can sometimes be lower down the pecking order. Which means, in turn, that it can be difficult to recruit and retain talented people, who may well be attracted to work in other industries or find it much more economically and personally attractive to leave to work in other countries.

Co-design
At the Leadership Foundation we know a lot about working overseas, borne out of our applied experience in many different countries and geopolitical contexts. Fundamental to our work is a deep appreciation of the importance of us coming to understand the context in which any particular intervention or support might be provided. Critically, this concerns the degree of maturity and capability of the existing higher education sector and the outcomes that are sought.

Our international work is intended to deliver on three levels; firstly, create partnership opportunities for our UK member institutions as a direct product of service design and co-delivery. Secondly, to assist in the internationalisation of our programmes (and through this provide exposure for members on domestic programmes to international practice). And finally, be expressly valued by members and key external stakeholders (e.g. UUKi, BIS and the British Council) as a contribution to the status, reputation and reach of UK higher educations.

Underlining it all is our listening and co-design approach to working with other countries, which means that we are not only be incredibly sensitive and mindful of an individual nation’s needs and context, but we will offer ideas and solutions borne out of that experience that will assist them to achieve their goals.

Embedding capacity building
We typically look to develop solutions which embed capacity building within the national context|: training the trainers and enhancing the capacity of the workforce with whom we’re dealing to take forward the work that we are doing with them. We do not support, condone, create or facilitate a culture of undue dependence.

And, important in all the work we do overseas is to deeply respect, understand and appreciate other countries’ accomplishments. Ours is not a deficit model but a model of adding value by bringing in a genuinely international experience to support colleagues in these countries to tackle the quite wicked issues they are trying to resolve.


The Leadership Foundation has recently launched a global services brochure, which details all of the services we offer as well as examples of their impact. To download your copy of the brochure please click here.

Alison Johns, chief executive of the Leadership Foundation will chairing a session ‘Future scoping for higher education leadership’ at Going Global 2017 on Tuesday 23 May 2017. Andy Shenstone, director of consultancy and business development will also be attending, if you would like to arrange a meeting please email andy.shenstone@lfhe.ac.uk.

For more information on the global works of the Leadership Foundation, please visit the website: www.lfhe.ac.uk/international

Has the governing body given attention to the institution’s policies and actions in relation to students’ mental health?

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David Williams the Leadership Foundation’s governance web editor, highlights one area where governing bodies may need to give increased attention following the recent report from HEPI, on the students’ mental health.

Governing bodies have overall responsibility for the strategic direction and sustainability of higher education institutions (HEIs). Governors are concerned about all matters fundamentally affecting the institution and its sustainability. Typically, amongst the many matters that a governing body will exercise oversight is student recruitment, retention and achievement. An emerging concern will the potential to impact significantly on student retention is mental health.

A new report by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), ‘The invisible problem? Improving student mental health’, suggests that increasing numbers of HE students are experiencing mental health problems. The report highlights that the matter has significant implications not just for the student, but also the institution. Students experiencing mental health issues are at greater risk of not completing their studies, and the institution facing a loss of tuition fee income. Given the rising incidence of mental health issues, the report suggests governing bodies could consider giving one governor a specific remit to track their institution’s progress in improving mental health support.

The majority of higher education students in the UK enter full-time undergraduate education aged 18 or 19. While these students are classed as adults and able to vote in public elections, less attention is paid to the major transitions they face when entering higher education for the first time.

The HEPI report points out that unlike many other countries the UK has a ‘boarding school model’ of higher education. This means students normally live away from home for the first time.

At precisely the point when they face significant academic and personal changes, including the need to come to terms with new forms of learning and build new friendships, students are separated from their support networks. The increasingly demanding nature of the graduate labour market and rising student debt levels add further pressure on students to do well at university.

Student distress is particularly centered on feelings of stress, anxiety and unhappiness. The report highlights the need for students to develop emotional resilience and learn how to become more compassionate to themselves and others. Cognitive ability on its own is insufficient to ensure student survival and achievement.

Although the data is incomplete and increased levels of disclosure and awareness may account in part for the rising demand falling on university counselling services, the HEPI report suggests there is clear evidence that mental health issues are becoming more common amongst higher education students. The assessment is supported by the responses from HEIs to recent freedom of information requests made by The Guardian newspaper.

The HEPI report questions the level of current support for mental health being provided by some HEIs. Expenditure to support students shows marked variation.

The report cites examples of institutional good practice, but equally suggests that governing bodies need to seek assurance that the institution has a formal mental health policy and associated action plan. A pre-condition for assessing such policies and plans is ensuring the scale of the problem at the institution is understood together with the current level of support offered. Data about the scale of students’ mental health problems tends to be patchy.

If they haven’t already addressed the issue, a governing body should examine the provision provided by their institution to support students with mental health difficulties. Above all, governing bodies need to ensure mental health issues affecting students are understood and appropriately addressed.

David Williams has been by the Leadership Foundation’s governance web editor since 2013. He has worked with the governing bodies and senior leadership teams of different higher education institutions for over 20 years.

Editor’s notes

  1. For a full set of briefing guides on governance edited by David, please go to www.lfhe.ac.uk/govbriefings
  2. Read the latest news on governance, including the latest newspiece by David on students’ mental health and the role of governing bodies, click here
  3. Other blogs on governance include:
    Book Review: What can governance in higher education learn from other sectors?Book review: Nonprofit Governance
    How can universities enhance the strategic development of the academic portfolio?Poland’s rapid response to change in higher education makes it a hidden gem

Book review: Nonprofit Governance

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by David Williams

Nonprofit Governance, published last June, discusses governance in ‘nonprofit’ or ‘not-for-profit’ organisations. While sector boundaries are imprecise and can change, the focus is on ‘third sector’ organisations. There are no specific examples of higher education institutions in the book, but it does explore issues of governance that vice-chancellors and their governing bodies will find of interest.

The contributors to the book are largely academic staff working in Australia, North America and the United Kingdom. The book takes a research perspective, but includes case studies illustrating aspects of governance in a specific sector or organisational setting. Nonprofit Governance is a collection of 14 chapter length contributions, organised under five themes. Each theme explores a current area of research on governance.

The reader is reminded that governance is a function and a board is a structure. Further, there is a need to look beyond composition and structure and give attention to board behaviours. Questions about the groups most likely to be represented on Boards, and democratic participation through and beyond Boards are explored.

The behaviour of the board chairs, individual board members and the board as a collective form two of the book’s themes The chapter entitled ‘Board monitoring and judgement as processes of sense making’ considers issues of monitoring non-financial performance and explores ‘sense making’ by Board members. The idea of ‘failures’ of board monitoring being ‘good people struggling to make sense of their circumstances’, rather than ‘bad people making poor decisions’ is introduced.

A review of organisational crises experienced by two museums and two performing arts organisations forms one of the case studies in the book. The problems created by unchallenged trust by the Board of the chief executive and a failure to receive, or demand, adequate and regular information about financial performance are set out. Subsequent financial difficulties resulted in a pivot in the Board’s focus towards financial matters, and away from ‘mission orientated’ activities.

The balance of ‘trust’ and ‘control’ between the Board and the chief executive was changed by the crisis. A period of intensive Board control (i.e. the opposite polarization to the previous situation), during which the organisation’s problems were addressed, was followed by the emergence of a ‘negotiated balance’ to the relationship between the Board and the (and in some cases, a new) chief executive. For some organisations, a further element to post-crisis governance was the remaking of the Board to change the balance of members with business skills and those with professional, sector-specific, expertise.

Not all contributors to the book support a move towards more conventional board structures and membership, and the Community Engagement Model™, is put forward as an alternative approach for at least some nonprofit organisations.

The case of English housing associations illustrates the impact of context on governance. Many associations have assumed responsibilities for what was formerly a public service. As a consequence they have moved from operating as ‘a small-scale complementary service provider to the main provider of social housing over the past 30 years.’ As a result the changes to the scale and complexity of running these organisations has affected governance substantially. Board membership has moved from the inclusion of representative members (e.g. tenants and local authorities), working on a voluntary and unpaid basis, to boards of ‘professional’ independent non-executives now paid for their work. A change from representational to professional boards.

The book goes on to consider ‘multi-level governance’. Contributors distinguish, and discuss, ‘nested’ (intra-) and ‘network’ (inter-organisational) governance in the context of federations and collaborative structures.

Although this book contains many interesting observations and insights, and claims to be written in ‘an accessible manner’, it unlikely to be read by those who might benefit most from some of its contents. As one contributor acknowledges when discussing their own contribution to the book, research on nonprofit governance is frequently published in scholarly journals (or discussed at academic conferences?) and risks never reaching practitioner communities. This is a pity, and a timely reminder to academic researchers of what should be an important purpose of their work.

Nonprofit Governance: innovative perspectives and approaches, edited by Chris Cornforth and Wiillam A Brown.

David Williams is the Leadership Foundation’s governance web editor.

The beating heart: student governors

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By Dr Mark Pegg

I have been asked to speak to student governors about why the Leadership Foundation needs to listen to the agenda set by emerging student leaders and how we need to develop leadership skills for careers beyond the university boardroom.
I was delighted to be asked. I am a believer. Student governors make a real difference. At several levels – big picture thinking, where students influence university strategic decision-making, at the practical day to day learning about leading complex organisations and through significant early exposure to personal leadership development – all with long term benefits.

I was a president of a student union and student governor myself many years ago. It was a small college, but the principles hold good, and I still use learning from the experience pretty much every day. When I was at university we had a voice, but no real power. If lecturers were indifferent (sadly many were) the response was: ‘tough, like it our lump it’. If we did not like the rise in fees in a time of great inflation we went on rent strike, did a demo and occupied the university offices. We developed as political animals, but actually had zero influence in corridors of power or any decisive impact on decision-making.

Today, at the strategic level, the balance of power has clearly shifted in favour of students. With the NSS, student loans, overseas students, increased competition for students, league tables, it is obvious universities need to contract with students. To hear and heed the student voice. They need a responsible, empowered student representative body, one they listen to, respond to and incorporate the thinking in to decisions. Learning for student governors here is invariably around complexity faced by leaders, where decisions are ambiguous and difficult. To progress issues where student governors have a lot to offer – such as efficiency, sustainability, employability and diversity – is often hard. To turn discussion into decisions and then into action and achievement is never clear cut.

Learning from the best leaders, those who take this on, bring people with them and make it happen is gold dust. It is also a two way process. Students are more than  consumers; they are part of the body politic of a functioning university, part of the beating heart. It’s a commonplace observation that students should provide some reverse mentoring and inform senior decision making on the digital future – resources, investment and working practices on social networks, mobile learning and the learning space students need.

At the practical level, you learn so much about administrative complexity, how culture eats strategy for breakfast, the illusion that pulling a lever in the boardroom is necessarily connected to anything moving or more importantly, moving in the direction you want it to go.

I was fortunate to attend meetings held by a very good chair. At meetings I chair, I use this approach as my baseline and endeavour to live up to the standards he set. I learned about organisational dynamics and the politics amongst the members of the Governing Body, about facing up to difficult issues (what happens when you don’t) and the challenging business of negotiating student fees and rents.

Personal learning about leadership helped me throughout my career. I had formed a mental picture of what was needed. It helped me get a job as executive assistant to the chairman of a large corporation and to grasp quickly the challenging scope of the job and what doing it well looked like. As a CEO today, I still call on deeply etched memories of sitting on a Governing Body in leading my own organisation and, completing the circle, in the Governing Body I sit on today.

Being a student governor can seriously affect your life. Never lose the learning as your career progresses, stop every now and then to reflect on what you have seen and heard – the good, the bad and the indifferent – and make a mental note to use it to become the very best leader you can be.

Dr Mark Pegg is the chief executive of the Leadership Programme. The annual student governor seminar attracts almost 90 students from around the UK and is the first event of the 2013-14 leadership development year.