Sue Rigby: HE leaders need the capacity to simplify

Sue Rigby
High student satisfaction levels helped the University of Lincoln to secure a gold award in the 2017 Teaching Excellence Framework. Sue Rigby, Lincoln’s deputy vice chancellor for student development, explains how encouraging staff to come up with their own solutions to problems is inspiring innovation.

You’re a passionate and experienced educational innovator. Which of the changes that you’ve made to teaching and learning during your career has had the most impact?

I think the thing I’ve done that’s really made a difference over the years that I’ve been in educational leadership, is that I’ve learned to listen to other people. Some of the daft things I’ve done have been when I’ve done a top-down solution to what I thought the problem to be and some of the clever things I’ve done is when I’ve shared the problem with people and asked them to come up with good solutions.

When I reflect on what’s gone really well and where institutions have changed, they’ve changed because people buy into the need for change and find something that works locally. I’m not sure that higher education can go beyond the granular. It’s so much about proximity to students that I’m quite nervous now about any university-wide solutions that we might try to impose, unless you leave that flexibility at the end to make them relevant.

What questions should next year’s applicants be asking the institutions they’re applying to about teaching and learning provision?

I’m not sure how you ask it but they should be asking whether the institutions know their students and care about them.

There’s all sorts of rhetoric that universities can put out around things like how much they spent on reforming their campus, or how big their library is or how good their technology is. Sometimes that’s congruent with knowing precisely what their learners need to thrive and sometimes it’s quite a poor proxy.

When parents and their children come to Lincoln we run a series of events that are pre-applicant events where we don’t expect necessarily that people will apply to Lincoln but we’re trying to show them what universities are so that when they go out to open days, they’re a bit more able to engage with our world because it’s quite an arcane space. And what we try to say is get a sense of whether your academics care about all of the students. And try to get a sense of how much value is put on learning and teaching in the institution and not be fooled by any of the proxies if they fail to deliver that.

How do you uncover that? It’s more an intention or a culture, and cultures are really hard to measure, but I think they’re very easy to identify if you just go in looking for them. You would very quickly know if you walked into a restaurant whether it was going to be an enabling space to have a nice meal and a conversation. You wouldn’t for long be fooled by the appearance of something that wasn’t delivered by the service on the ground.

The hard thing to get across to applicants is that the exact subject you study is much less important than what you learn.

When you go into the university how do the academics treat you? Are they interested in you? Do they listen to you? Do they sound knowledgeable? Do they sound like they care? Do they sound like they build a community of learners? Go with gut feeling and most of the time if you trust that judgement, you’ll probably be right. The hard thing to get across to applicants is that the exact subject you study is much less important than what you learn.

One learning environment may suit one person, but not another. It’s a matching process. Think about how it feels and how you’d fit in. I think you probably have to go along and have a look and get a feel for an institution.

What plans do you have to enhance teaching and learning at Lincoln?

The biggest plan is that we’ve set up the Lincoln Academy of Learning and Teaching, which is a space where academics mentor and support and teach one another. And our basic premise is that we have academics who are good at every aspect of learning and teaching and all we need to do is generate the spaces where they can share that.

We have an elected dean, members of staff have chosen who will lead the academy. That elected dean is chosen on a manifesto and has 18 months to enact that and then somebody else will be elected to take on the next stages.

What we’re hoping to do is get away from that sense of central locus of expertise and to spread the self-confidence that across our academic body we can anything we choose.

Which aspect of your career do you most enjoy and why?

This is going to sound odd but I really like learning about bits of the university that I didn’t know about in an earlier job. I find universities completely fascinating.

Although a lot of what I do is learning and teaching, at Lincoln I chair steering groups about buildings, I chair our long term website development. For two years I was in charge of the sports strategy, I’m a governor for the student union. I think the more you know about universities, the more respect you have for them and the more interesting they are and the more you can link things up that seem unrelated and put people in a position to capitalise on other things they wouldn’t necessarily know about.

I love working with human resources. and I suppose if I had to pick out one thing, it’s that I’ve developed routes to professor in learning and teaching in two different institutions now and I think that makes a real difference to academics – and it isn’t just academics who apply for or get those chairs. It’s a statement of intent for the university, and I’m really proud that two universities I’ve worked at have made that statement of intent.

High calibre educational leadership is needed more than ever in the sector given the current climate. What are the three qualities that HE leaders need above others?

The first thing is that we need to stop being nervous about defining educational leadership, we need to be absolutely clear that that is what is required but with the caveat that leadership is not necessarily about telling people what to do.

I ran a seminar with some staff recently around leadership and they came in with the sense that leaders are bad people- their models were all dictators and autocrats – people they really didn’t respect! By the end of the seminar, they’d realised that what they do in their day job has a serious element of leadership but they might have framed it as mentoring or coaching or listening.

Find out more about efficiency and innovation in teaching and learning.

HE leaders need the capacity to simplify, to see through all the complexity that’s around you and say ‘This matters most, do this’.

Persuasiveness helps and listening skills, more than anything else, the ability to listen and to respond to what people actually need to do the job well. As HE leaders we need to be clear that what matters is people.

What is the biggest challenge facing higher education at the moment?

On the one hand you have to say external uncertainty, what’s going to happen to quality assurance, the teaching excellence framework, fee structures, are we going to grade universities holistically or at subject level. Will we get a good 15 month Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) score? Will we take into account life skills as well as academic learning?

You would like to think that an institution has a strong sense of what it’s for. And I think the real challenge at the moment is that as a sector we’re at risk of losing some of our individual identity as we respond to all of these different changes and once the identity is gone I’m not sure how you reclaim it.

I think there’s a risk that institutions may lose focus on their own identity because they’re meeting external metrics

I think there’s some analogy around high street shops. You want a high street that’s all individual shops that know what they’re for, and what you don’t want is corporate entities. I think there’s a risk that institutions may lose focus on their own identity because they’re chasing meeting external metrics and their identity could become blurred by being brought into alignment with their performance on the external metrics. I’m worried that what we’ll lose is that sense of self.

With such a dynamic job, what do you do to switch off?

I spend time with my family, I have two teenage boys, and my partner is also an academic. And I go to a lot of operas.