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  • Martin Betts

Deeds not words: BEYOND panicgogy

Updated: Oct 21





We have just seen mental health week come and go. It has happened at a time when we have never had more concern for ourselves, our friends and family, and the broader mental health of all in our sector. Our state of mind is a pressing issue for our students, staff and leaders as we realise that higher education experiences have changed for ever.

We have a very diverse range of students across our 39 universities. The experience for some of them was challenging in the best of times. Right now, there are many that are hurting. The staff of our universities made an extraordinary response to moving all education online within days. They have maintained that, through almost two full semesters now. It has occurred for staff, with an increasing awareness that this is the new normal, that cuts to our staffing have or soon will be made, and that resourcing levels and business models will never be the same again.

It has happened for students at times when employment prospects have taken a huge step backwards, and when the learning experience has been less than ideal, and not what they signed up for. At the moment one might describe our system as being fuelled and based on adrenaline. It is not sustainable.

A sustainable means of responding to the current crisis, or opportunity as we might increasingly see it, will require us building a collaborative, innovative and equitable culture in higher education institutions.

We have in all of our universities, communities of scholars that have always had a deep concern for social justice, the transformational effect of education, and addressing grand challenges. The best hope for relieving the pressure and threats to the mental health of our staff and students may well be to harness their underpinning values and beliefs and build real commitment out of adversity. This will need to come from leaders building trust out of great communication through deeds more than words, and invoking passion based on shared purpose.

The need right now is for our staff and students to feel they want to commit to improved higher education experiences by being more collaborative, innovative and allowing their concerns for the needs of others to be brought to the surface. But we are asking them to do so when they are isolated and remote, paralysed by shock to their systems, and pre-occupied with looking after themselves in a crisis.

The great pedagogy and research that we will need from our communities of scholars in the next phase will not come from us telling them what to do and how to do it. The adrenaline will run out soon. We need to show them how to do it by how we are.

The extraordinary work that will happen in our universities in the next phase, will need an extraordinary focus on culture. It will be culture created by outstanding leadership and clear strategy. And it will build upon staff, students and partners that are engaged in new ways to unleash their potential to collaborate, innovate and transform the lives of others.

The universities that make this happen will gain transformed reputations. The leaders that show the way will be seen to have completed the greatest work they have ever done. The cultures that will make it possible will be places that people will always remember what it felt like to study, work at or partner with.

At a time when things have never been so tough, and pressure has never been so great, the opportunity will arise to do our very best work. It’s a time to think differently, reimagine, and respond with deeds not words.

This crisis in our current system, and the need and opportunity to respond to it in this way, was the focus of this week’s HEDx podcast episode. Our guest was Professor Sally Kift who is widely regarded as a champion of the student experience and of student equity. She described the need for us to find a new way of doing things in overcoming the current practice of panicgogy. This is a term first coined in the US for the unusual things we have going on at present. You can hear episode 6 of HEDx on Spotify or Apple.

And you can read more about how we are looking to assist leaders in changing the higher education experience for good at the HEDx website.

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