Leading and learning through Covid-19: “Next Steps” in Irish higher education

What has Irish higher education been able to learn from the experience of Covid-19 and what will this mean for the future of learning and teaching? Partners from across the sector considered this urgent question from March – November 2021. In this piece, Alison Farrell from Maynooth University shares some of the ideas on leadership, decision-making and student partnership that have emerged from the “Next Steps” project.

In March 2021, 15 partners  from a broad range of stakeholders across the Irish higher education sector agreed to work in partnership to answer one important and urgent question: In the context of Covid-19, what have we learnt and what does it mean for the future of teaching and learning in Irish higher education?

On 10 November 2021, the shared output of the partners’ collaborative work, “Next Steps for Teaching and Learning: Moving Forward Together”, was launched by Ireland’s Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Simon Harris. In his foreword to the “Next Steps” report, Harris drew attention to, among other messages from the project, those that highlighted “positive changes in decision-making and leadership, the importance of student engagement and partnership” (p. 1).

The “Next Steps” partner contributions comprised findings from surveys, interviews, focus groups, workshops and meetings. The findings included recognition of the substantial burden that senior leaders bore in terms of management and decision-making, as well as highlighting the development or emergence of other forms of leadership, management and decision-making. It was noted in the “Next Steps” report that:

As a result of the pandemic, we developed new ways of informing and making decisions, of creating strategic coherence and influencing strategic priorities …. distributed leadership approaches allowed students and staff to draw on their expertise and to lead out in their own areas. (“Next Steps”, 2021, p. 11)

The report highlighted that good practice, which both existed pre-Covid-19 and emerged as part of the response to the pandemic, contributed to institutional capacity to function in the radically changed circumstances. Good practice associated directly with leadership, decision-making and student partnership included:

  • further strengthening the inclusive ethos and consultative approaches to decision-making across all roles and levels in institutions and, where necessary, moving towards more inclusive approaches to decision-making;
  • endeavouring to balance agility around decision-making with the necessity for participative processes;
  • exploring distributed leadership models;
  • sharing ways of formalising how we actively engage with students and student feedback in order to effect change;
  • working with student unions and other relevant partners to encourage greater diversity of student participation in student engagement and partnership efforts;
  • co-creating with students schemes and initiatives that support and enhance student engagement and partnership activities throughout institutional life, including active roles for students in changemaking. (“Next Steps”, 2021, p. 13)

Cross-functional teamwork by colleagues, for example from different academic departments and a range of professional services, was also noted in the partner findings, as was the deliberate inclusion of student voices in decision-making.

These practices and approaches align with nurturing an enabling culture and with emphasising equity/equality, diversity and inclusion, both of which emerged as key messages across the partner findings, as did the message that “Decision-making and leadership can be effectively shared across the whole institutional community” (p. 10).

The complementary ideas of leadership as individual agency and collective capacity (see Thérèse Zhang’s Expert Voices post “Leadership in teaching: a concept in the making”) and as “shared leadership” (see Oliver Vettori’s Expert Voices post “Sharing leadership and the art of tightrope walking”) are echoed in the full report. Oliver Vettori suggests that effective leadership does not happen overnight; rather, it takes learning, experience, support and time. This belief is reflected in one of the recommendations from “Next Steps”, which recorded the need to “Prioritise and resource leadership development for those currently in leadership roles, as well as staff and students at all levels of the institution, including a focus on Teaching & Learning leadership and change management” (2021, p. 16).

Such development could build on current provision in this space nationally and, indeed, at European level. The LOTUS Leadership Development Programme offers a good example of the latter. It uses a peer learning approach to leadership, enabling higher education colleagues from a range of settings to connect, share, explore, learn and plan. LOTUS emphasises starting with people, building connection and community, and creating an open atmosphere of collegiality and trustworthiness. These characteristics are echoed in “Next Steps” and in the intentions of its authors to “build on what we have learnt, re-examine old doctrines and re-imagine higher education for the benefit of learners and society more generally” (2021, p. 3).

The “Next Steps” report captures the partners’ examination of the experience of teaching, learning and working in higher education during the pandemic, at a particular moment in time. Its key messages, good practice and recommendations correspond with themes that were shared in conversations with European colleagues as part of the LOTUS project, and may resonate with staff and students alike in a variety of jurisdictions.

“Expert Voices” is an online platform featuring original commentary and analysis on the higher education and research sector in Europe. It offers EUA experts, members and partners the opportunity to share their expertise and perspectives in an interactive and flexible exchange on key topics in the field.

All views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of EUA.

Alison Farrell

Alison Farrell works in the Centre for Teaching and Learning in Maynooth University (Ireland). From January 2019 to December 2021, she was seconded to the National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education – which led the “Next Steps” project – as Senior Lead for Sectoral Engagement. She is a group facilitator in the LOTUS Leadership Development Programme.


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