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Re-imagining university futures: building upon Professor Allan Gibb’s legacy

Updated: Oct 7, 2022

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Reporting on the first ‘Reimagining Our Futures’ webinar in the series organised by the Societal Innovation and Enterprise Forum (SIEF) – Friday 4th September 2020.

Written by Felicity Healey-Benson, Entrepreneurial Learning Champion at UWTSD's International Institute for Creative Entrepreneurial Development (IICED) and the founder of EmergentThinkers.Com

Reimaging futures amidst and beyond Covid-19:

At the start of the webinar a collection of photos of the late Professor Allan Gibb curated by Marju Unt (Founder and CEO, Estonian Euromanagement Institute) and musically supported with Frank Sinatra’s rendition of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” rolled across the screen.

An evocative and visceral welcome to the first ‘Reimagining Our Futures’ webinar organised by the Societal Innovation and Enterprise Forum (SIEF). The event served to celebrate Allan’s legacy in the field of Entrepreneurship and Small Business; with the first topic exploring how university leadership post Covid-19 requires an entrepreneurial response.

A moving start to a discussion between an international panel of practitioners and experts, moderated by Professor Andrew Atherton (Global Director of Transnational Education (TNE) at Navitas, UK). The international panel of practitioners and experts included:

  • Dr Susan Frenk, Principal, St Aidan’s College, Durham University, UK

  • Professor Emeritus Slavica Singer, J.J. Strossmayer University in Osijek, Croatia

  • Ian Dunn, Provost, Coventry University, UK and Chair, National Centre for Entrepreneurship in Education (NCEE)

  • Dr Pramath Raj Sinha, Founder and Chair, Harappa Education, Co-Founder, Ashoka University and Founding Dean, Indian School of Business, Hyderabad, India

  • Yaman Islim, Assistant Vice President, Product Management, Delta Capita, London, UK

University leadership post Covid-19: the entrepreneurial challenge

Listening in to the panellists, it’s tantalisingly obvious, opportunity can and will arise even in crises. Each one brought perspectives from different parts of the world, offered different institutional lenses with which to view university leadership and provided insights about responses in higher education to Covid-19. They were conjoined and of a single mind that the pandemic has further augmented and accelerated the mandate for change in universities.

‘Widening Access’ and ‘Thinking Beyond Walls’

Universities must become drivers of change. The pandemic context is risking the disadvantaged even further than before. The university model, its policies, procedures and organisation are rich for review, and according to Professor Slavica Singer are ripe for Allan’s ‘principles of creative destruction’. Dr Pramath Raj Sinha emphasised the importance of taking the university experience outside its physical walls, outside the limits of the current sets of students and faculty, to adults and learners who would have otherwise never experienced high-quality learning. Yes, agreed Ian Dunn in responding to this assertion: “there is so much more to do beyond the open courses, to make our institutions open to everyone, for everyone to access and have a voice”. Summing up panel contributions, Dr Susan Frenk explained “it’s not just about physical presence inside the university walls, but the active living relationships with the communities in which they’re geographically based, and increasingly the communities we have around the world’.

Levering technology

Ian celebrated the agility and creativity of the work achieved recently by the many academic institutions across the globe, facilitated in the main part by technology. From liberating formal assessment regimes to more open access to university learning. Yet the pandemic has exposed flaws in long-term strategies, massive investment in buildings an obvious one. Instead, he argued for universities to create versatile virtual estates, leveraging technology further. The entrepreneurial call on the leadership of our institutions is to deal with complexity head-on. Reflecting on his conversations with Allan, shaping educational futures is indeed a wicked problem. “However, you have to be comfortable with not knowing all of the answers, putting your toes in the water, taking some risks, even some pain”. Dr Sinha highlighted entrepreneurship is most effective under conditions of resource scarcity and constraint, and, as Allan would say, success would come to those individuals and institutions who could respond innovatively or creativity, and work with business, small and large, as well as the government.

‘The only solution we have right now in our limited capacities is using technology‘.

-Dr Pramath Raj Sinha

Yaman Islim supplemented this view with the call for universities to focus laser-like on the quality of the online student experience and engagement. Students are their greatest asset. And, this, he said, necessitates investment in more research and better technological platforms in this area, predicting that the student virtual experience will become a key metric in university rankings.

Allan once asked ‘what is the difference between the University and the graveyard?’ And we looked at him, he was smiling, and he said ‘none!’ Let’s get radical, lest someone else fill our place. Let’s develop partnerships, with the government, the business sectors, and especially with students.

– Professor Emeritus Slavica Singer

Hope, Roots, Partnership, and Critical Pedagogy

Whilst recognising universities come in many shapes and forms and with distinct histories, Dr Frenk called for a return to values. Institutes have become constrained and shaped by their funding models, and this has distracted from their original ethos. Key stakeholders must rise above the audit and competition culture, and be open to learning from anyone and everyone else, to work with the very challenging and often fast-moving realities. “Education isn’t a one-way process. It’s very much reciprocal. It’s sharing. It’s partnership. Collaboration between individuals and groups of academics and the wider community is crucial” suggested Dr Frenk. It is now necessary to reconfigure what constitutes a university relationship, pursue ‘interdisciplinary interaction’, and both work with, and for, providing a ‘reflective space, for small and medium business owners’.

And being radical doesn’t mean tearing things up from the roots. Problematic aspects of globalisation come from the people who do not feel rooted anywhere. Digitisation should be employed to help universities to retain a sense of a real place, for the people who populate it, whilst still reaching out to exchanging and learn from other places. Yet face to face still matters. Universities must reflect upon and cherish their roots alongside embracing innovation.

When the going gets tough…

It’s is clear that the panel views the current context as a pot of bubbling opportunity and driver for radical change. Dr Sinha tendered personal and practical examples of an entrepreneurial spirit taking advantage of windows of opportunity to get good things done quickly. Yet it requires a leap of faith and some risk. Yaman concluded, universities should lead by example and embrace risk. In fact, they should make more explicit in their leading and in their teaching that ‘failure’ is acceptable. There is no shame starting with something and failing. The opportunities for university leaders are many fold, as are the challenges. In these ‘tough times’ should universities be taking positions and considering effecting change around wider socio-economic inequalities and structural disadvantages, such as racial discrimination (Black Lives Matter), environmental degradation, erosion of free speech and ‘fake news’, ‘decolonising’ and opening up the curriculum to diverse and hierarchically challenging views and experiences? Covid-19 or not, university leaders must respond.

Rolling Credits

“So deep in my heart so that you’re really a part of me” (Porter, 1938). Allan, your legacy runs deep and is very much alive!

Thanks to all the panellists and the efforts of the Societal Innovation and Enterprise Forum (SIEF) organising committee, including Andrew Atherton, Dinah Bennett, Susan Frenk, Ted Fuller, Yolanda Gibb, Gay Haskins, Keith Herrmann, Andy Penaluna, Kathryn Penaluna, Jane Rindl, Slavica Singer, Mike Thomas and Marju Unt.

The Societal Innovation and Enterprise Forum (SIEF) has its roots in the Durham Symposium held in 2015 to celebrate the 50 year anniversary of the Small Business Centre created by Professor Allan Gibb. In Allan’s words, SIEF is to “act as a catalyst for social and economic innovation, stimulate debate and innovative thinking, develop new models and programmes, thereby contributing to inclusive and sustainable regional development, and harnessing the contribution of the independently owner-managed business and other stakeholders.”

Links/Works Cited

Gibb, A., Haskins, G., Hannon, P. & Robertson, I. (2009/12) ‘Leading the Entrepreneurial University’, The National Centre for Entrepreneurship in Education (NCEE)

Gibb, A. (2003) In Pursuit of a New’ Enterprise’ and ‘Entrepreneurship’ Paradigm for Learning: Creative Destruction, New Values, New Ways of Doing Things and New Combinations of Knowledge.

“I’ve Got You Under My Skin” – written by Cole Porter in 1936

For more detail on the life and works of Professor Allan Gibb

Forthcoming webinars in this series:

1. Re-designing entrepreneurial learning around problems and issues – 23 October 2020.

2. Creating entrepreneurial universities: the new frontier.

3. Universities as partnership models for driving positive change.


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