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Sustaining people through their souls

Water droplets on a window

How are universities sustaining people in their communities?

Where’s the evidence that we’re giving places their identity and pride?

In a year when life is tough for so many, universities could be seen as bucking some of the trends afflicting other parts of society.

The last issue of Times Higher Education before the start of the new academic year (18-31 August) offers an intriguing snapshot of the sector. Alongside symptoms of growing discontent that could trigger industrial action, paradoxically there’s also a sense of confidence in a future for universities that’s brighter than we’ve seen for a few years.

There’s discernible optimism over increased QR research funding. There’s booming recruitment, both from within the UK and internationally. We read about the transformative potential for students’ experience through a virtual reality metaverse.

We note calls from university leaders for the Government to seize opportunities to celebrate HE’s success. According to Sir David Bell, universities should demonstrate willingness to support students as well as developing their working capabilities. They will also need to ensure that research and innovation meets real needs. [1] So far, so good.

Yet in our wider society, there’s a visceral cry for all our cultural and social institutions to dig deeper – to work to meet people’s needs in the social and economic crisis looming on our doorsteps. It may be obvious how education can help to do this. The strategic drivers for universities are pretty explicit in terms of social good. But we’re challenged to do more. Elizabeth Newman of Pitlochry Festival Theatre says that organisations need to focus on “sustain[ing] people – through their souls as well as their stomachs”. [2]

What might this imply for universities and their leadership?

It means a lot more than being efficient and meeting short-term objectives. If we’re to be truly sustainable, we need in turn to sustain: to strengthen, hearten and succour. Through intellectual and emotional endeavour we can realise our potential.

This starts from the behaviour modelled by leaders and their teams. In the Executive Boardroom, in the Students’ Union, throughout faculties, departments and courses. When institutional values are lived out in daily and consistent practice, the outcomes become manifold: increased commitment, motivation, meaning and purpose.

Energy radiates from people who have a genuine will and ability to work together. Others are attracted to this and want to be a part of this, to belong. When universities open up to engage with communities in their places and cities, civic identity and pride are multiplied. Everyone benefits.

Cultivating these qualities takes dedication and persistence. It doesn’t happen overnight. But it begins with an act of kindness or consideration. It multiplies through storytelling and feedback. It sustains itself through dialogue which generates reflection and learning.

There’s a growing generation of Vice-Chancellors and their teams who get this. It’s both a rewarding and worthwhile challenge to work with and support them.

These are the institutions whose communities are learning to thrive.  


[1] ‘Race for No 10 “depressing”’, Tom Williams. Times Higher Education No. 2,515, p.9.

[2] Opinion, Charlotte Higgins, The Guardian Journal section, 20 August 2022, p.4.

About the author: Paul Gentle is the Academic Director at Invisible Grail. A leadership expert, Paul has dedicated the last twelve years to creating and delivering leadership development programmes in higher education.

This article has been kindly repurposed and you can read the original here.