Re-building a research community post-Covid19: The case of the Centre for Education and Research

Activity: Academic Talks or PresentationsOral presentationResearch


2020 has been a challenging year across the world. Covid19 has caused pain, disruption, financial and health woes to millions. Higher education has not been immune from any of them. In no time, and due to lockdowns, universities have had to switch to online teaching and students to get used to remote learning. But these were only the tip of the iceberg as an avalanche of other changes took place. In the UK universities were asked to make their campuses Covid-ready, to cater for students on campus and students off-campus, assignment deadlines were rescheduled, policies revised. Research had to adjust to online data collection, and, if not possible, postponed. Amidst all the changes, many universities had to freeze their recruitment, and, in some cases, going through painful restructures, internal mergers, and the loss of staff.

This paper focuses on one of such restructures as it describes and reflects on the journey taken by the authors leading the revival of research within the Education Department in a teaching-intensive university. In doing so, our reflections as Co-directors of the Centre for Education and Research (CER) offer colleagues a ‘map’ of how to lead change during a volatile, complex, uncertain and ambiguous historical context.

The change plan is located within a number of interrelated and cross-cutting contexts at three levels:
• Micro-level: focused on the co-directors, their shifting professional identities and the affordabilities of such identities;
• Meso-level: the people, policies and strategies related to the change within the authors’ faculty
• Macro-level: the policies and strategies within the University and in the field of higher education at present, including the COVID crisis

Each level exerted power, both in terms of power to act and powerful barriers disabling the authors in achieving our plan.

At the macro-level, the University has undergone major changes, such as:
• move to a new campus;
• move to Active Blended Learning;
• 3 faculty restructures, including the merger of Education;
• cuts to administration;
• cuts to academic staff;
• a 2015-20 strategy with various iterations and revisions; and,
• and one internal departmental restructure within education.

The list does not reflect in full the nature of the changes at the meso and micro-level of the institution and the impact and consequences, positive and/or negative, that such changes have had.

Major developments of the role and nature of HE were already taking place both internationally and in the UK. Such changes have been redefining the role universities would and should play both as engines for economic development and growth, and as pivotal to promoting teaching and research which has a social impact. A redefinition of the nature of HE is therefore caught between ensuring two seemingly opposite aims: open competition for survival within a marketised paradigm, and enhancement and achievement of common good (Goddard and Vallance, 2011) within a context of heightened managerialism (Deem, et al., 2007; Naidoo, 2008), or what McGettigan (2011) calls the HE ‘toxic’ environment. To these, we need to add the ongoing crisis of Education and its undisciplined disciplined nature as a subject (Bridges, 2006), and the increased competition from other research intensive universities and not-for-profit and commercial research companies.

Leading change within these constraints, including over-worked and generally teaching-focused colleagues, demanded to adopt a flexible, adaptable, inclusive and diffused style of leadership (Devecchi and Potter, 2020), which was ‘”emergent” … more genuinely shared … as a property of groups’ (Sweetman, et al, 2018: 4).

Methods/methodology (400)
CER was founded around 15 years ago and for the first decade focused successfully on research in inclusion and special education, moving onto other areas of educational research as more active researchers were employed and the number of doctoral students increased. Yet, the latest restructures culminated with a loss of almost half of the research active staff, at the time when both the University and the Faculty research strategies asks for aspirational changes to research.

The methodology used by the current co-directors to revive CER and support around 80 people between lecturers and doctoral students has been ongoing, and responsive to university wide changes which both enabled, and at times constrained our plans and strategy for change. It has been based on the combination of Noble’s (2019) ‘situation analysis’ approach to change, and Kotter’s (2012) 8-steps change model. In brief:
1. Situation analysis aimed to develop an understanding of the constraints and affordances, both in relation to staff and policy context with a view to help us define the problem and put forward solutions. This stage was key during the Summer of 2020 resulting in a report on CER activities, and which has been ongoing as the situation changed.
2. Formulate a strategic vision – Based on the result of stage 1, we formulated the ‘REACH’ strategic vision (Recognising, Engaging, Acknowledging, Contributing and Harnessing) fostering the mission of CER, that is, ‘to nurture and promote social justice, equity and inclusion through a culture of high quality research that is accessible to all in education and related disciplines’.
3. Communicate the vision and strategy – an ongoing process including 1-2-1 meetings with departmental leaders, Faculty Senior Managers, and presentations of the strategy to colleagues and students across the University feeding back to our understanding of the needs and aspirations of staff and the adjustment of both strategy its operationalisation; and review of external communication through CER webpages.
4. Accelerate movement – A multi-dimensional approach to operationalizing the strategy in small steps involving ways to draw attention to the centre and invite collaboration (e.g. seminars, doctoral training events, continuing consultation).
5. Celebrate visible, short-term wins – communication of successes such as successful vivas, publications, research funding.
6. Never let up – an ongoing process of consultation and communication including external communication about CER.
7. Institutionalisation of strategic change – Inclusion of CER in the Faculty Research Strategy and continue working on definition of roles and responsibilities within it.

Expected outcomes (300)
At the time of writing this abstract, the participatory, multilateral and bi-partisan approach of bridging the gap between staff/students and senior management has resulted in an agreed strategic and operational plan for CER inclusive of vision statement and operational plan; creation of 7 special interest groups covering the interest of staff and students in Education but allowing the inclusion of others across the University; development of doctoral training programme; launch of seminar series and workshops; out-reach initiatives.

There is of course much more which needs to be done and the results will take time to materialise. Still, a number of lessons have been learnt which would be of interest to colleagues who are, likewise, involved in planning for a Post-Covid19 world. Briefly, they include:
• The importance of a leadership approach which is inclusive and democratic, and starting from the needs and aspirations of the colleagues and students;
• An ongoing and responsive communication strategy whose aim is to bring all internal stakeholders to the table;
• The role of co-directors as leaders capable to share, distribute and support others to lead while serving as bridges between all interested parties;

Yet, much remains to be achieved and operationalised.

Intent of publication
Studies in Higher Education

References (400)

Bridges, D. (2006) Disciplines and discipline of educational research. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 40, 2, 259-272
Deem, R, Hillyard, S. and Reed, M. (2007) Knowledge, Higher Education, and the New Managerialism: The Changing Management of UK Universities. Oxford, MA: Oxford University Press

Devecchi, C. and Potter, J. (2020) The reflective educational change leader: concluding remarks on a journey into delivering educational change. In Potter, J. and Devecchi, C. (2020) Delivering Education Change in Higher Education: A Transformative Approach for Leaders and Practitioners. London: Routledge

Goddard, J. and Vallance, P. (2011) The Civic University: Re-uniting the University and the City. In Higher Education in Cities and Regions: For Stronger, Cleaner and Fairer Regions. Paris: OECD

Kotter, J. (2012) Leading Change. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

McGettigan, A. (2011) New providers: The creation of a market in higher education. Radical Philosophy, 167, 2-8

Naidoo, R. (2008) Higher education: A powerhouse for development in a neo-liberal age? In. D. Epstein, R. Boden, R. Deem, F. Rizvi and S. Wright (eds) Geographies of Knowledge, Geometries of Power: Framing the Future of Higher Education. New York: Routledge

Noble, J. (2019) Theory of change in ten steps. London: New Philanthropy Capital

Sweetham, L., Gornall, L. and Brychan, T. (2018) Consensual leadership in higher education work: introduction to the book, its context and concerns. In Gornall, L. et al. (Eds.) Exploring Consensual Leadership in Higher Education. Co-operation, Collaboration and Partnership. London: Bloomsbury
Period9 Sept 2021
Held atECER 2021 (Online) - Education and Society: expectations, prescriptions, reconciliations, 6-10 September 2021 , Switzerland
Degree of RecognitionInternational


  • Research development
  • Early career researchers
  • organisational culture
  • organisation change
  • Leadership
  • research leadership