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Five ingredients for a successful university transformation

Rimante Rusaite
Number 5 on blue background

In the dynamic landscape of higher education, fostering entrepreneurship and innovation at higher education institutions (HEIs) is key to staying relevant and impactful. This notion comes across multiple European policy initiatives and EU funding programmes[1] that aim to position Europe and its HEIs at the forefront of the continent’s resilience and future transformation.

In 2023, UIIN kicked off the project Accelerate_FutureHEI funded under one of the Horizon Europe calls[2] supporting the design and testing of acceleration services for 9 HEIs to advance their institutional transformation. The insights drawn from the first year of implementation of the project provide valuable lessons for HEIs aiming to embark on their own transformation.

In reflecting on the first year of the project, we found there were several principles that were key ingredients to successful outcomes when considering institutional transformation. But first, an introduction to our project: The project’s methodology is based on a gap analysis. This involves a three-phase approach to understand each HEI testing partner’s context, goals and status quo to provide an evidence base and solid starting point for identifying areas and opportunities for institutional transformation.

Phase one – Mapping out the context

The significance of the initial phase lies in its holistic approach, viewing HEIs as intricate systems. By conducting pre-scanning and asset mapping activities, valuable insights were gained into the strategies, policies, and resources available within these institutions and their surrounding ecosystems. This comprehensive analysis not only documented the existing landscape but also pinpointed strengths and resources, essential for informed decision-making.

Phase two – Setting the goals for a desired future

A pivotal aspect of the process was the participatory nature of the Desired Future State Focus Group discussions. These sessions acted as catalysts for collaboration among diverse stakeholders within the universities. Despite initial challenges, the collaborative framework nurtured shared visions for the future, laying the groundwork for the direction of institutional transformation. The resulting focus group reports raised awareness and also provided tangible documents for further institutional planning.

Phase three – Understanding the current state

Finally, the incorporation of surveys provided evidence-based data, addressing key questions regarding entrepreneurial activities, mindset, and organisational support. The qualitative insights from focus groups and quantitative data from surveys enriched the analysis, allowing us to identify potential change pathways and create action plans.

Five key ingredients for a successful HEIs institutional transformation

Viewing HEIs as systems

Recognising HEIs as complex systems is essential for understanding the multifaceted challenges and opportunities inherent in institutional transformation. From a systems thinking perspective, HEIs are akin to intricate networks where small, strategic interventions can lead to significant, widespread changes.

Donella Meadows’ concept of “leverage points” highlights this notion, describing them as “places within a complex system where a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything[3].

This approach enables HEIs to identify critical areas where targeted efforts can yield substantial, transformative results.

Identifying leverage points

One of the most effective leverage points identified in the project is the initiation of conversations within the universities. These discussions engaging diverse stakeholders, whether formal or informal, bring light to different perspectives and foster an understanding of common goals and challenges. Initiating and maintaining these open communication channels within HEIs can significantly enhance their ability to implement meaningful change.

Bringing stakeholders together

A fundamental principle of the Accelerate_FutureHEI project is its promotion of collaboration among stakeholders who might not typically interact. This inclusive approach is key to breaking down silos within institutions and encourages a culture of collective action. By involving a wide range of stakeholders—including faculty, administration, students, and external partners—HEIs can harness a wealth of knowledge and expertise to drive forward their transformation agendas.

Empowering and enabling individuals as drivers of change

Transformational change within HEIs is driven by individuals who are empowered to act as changemakers. The project emphasises the importance of enabling and supporting these individuals to take the initiative and lead transformation efforts. This empowerment is facilitated through professional development opportunities through the training courses provided by UIIN, access to resources (e.g. mentors, frameworks and tools), and by creating an environment that values and supports innovation.

Co-creation and evidence-based decision making

Effective transformation is grounded in collective and data-informed decision-making processes. The Accelerate_FutureHEI project underscores the importance of co-creation, where stakeholders collaboratively develop strategies and solutions. This approach not only ensures that decisions are well-informed but also enhances their legitimacy and acceptance across the institution. By relying on data-driven insights, HEIs can make strategic decisions that are aligned with their long-term goals.

The first year of the Accelerate_FutureHEI project has provided valuable lessons for HEIs aiming to embark on their own transformative journeys. By viewing HEIs as complex systems, identifying leverage points, fostering stakeholder collaboration, empowering individuals, and relying on evidence-based decision-making, institutions can navigate the challenges of transformation effectively. These insights highlight both the importance of a structured approach and underscore the potential for substantial impact through strategic, collaborative efforts.

Follow the project developments on the website and social media.

References

[1] Commission Communication on a European strategy for universities. From https://education.ec.europa.eu/document/commission-communication-on-a-european-strategy-for-universities

[2] Entrepreneurial & Innovative Universities Acceleration Programme. From https://cordis.europa.eu/project/id/101095083

[3] Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System. From https://donellameadows.org/archives/leverage-points-places-to-intervene-in-a-system/

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Rimante Rusaite (author) is a Senior Project Officer at UIIN and holds an MSc in Environmental Policy and BSc in Psychology. Dedicated to sustainability and innovations, she’s also a design thinking coach and systems thinking enthusiast.

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