Integrated thinking (1) on macro and micro levels in UK HEIs during the Covid-19 crisis - insights from the University of the West of Scotland (UWS).
Universities have a unique place in society. They are not only centres of creative thinking and innovation but they also fulfil many additional roles, providing leadership, advice and support. As a result, academics and scientists are the nation’s powerhouses of knowledge and are playing a critical role in the global response to the pandemic, informing decision-making through their expertise.
UK medical schools, too, have been on the frontline of this emergency, supporting the NHS and the social care services. The medical schools have provided additional medical staff – from clinical academics to final year medical graduates. Newly qualified doctors, pharmacists, nurses, and paramedics have been fast-tracked to help. In addition, engineering expertise called out to solve the health care challenges in terms of ventilators, PPE equipment, and so forth. Academics in other disciplines have fulfilled their duties and they adopted very quickly to reposition their research focus to help to deal with Covid-19 crisis.
Many universities started to offer free webinars in areas such as 'managing in crisis', 'working virtually' and 'responsible businesses' to try to help communities and businesses. At UWS, a partnership between the University’s medical staff, the engineering department and industry partners to devise a new form of reusable PPE with a self-circulating air supply was just one of the many examples of integrated thinking. And there are many other examples of UK HEIs who have combined efforts with private sector organisations to form partnerships to develop critical research programmes. As well as this, Social Sciences research has analysed the impact of Covid-19 on communities in towns and cities; Business Schools are studying the pandemic’s economic disruption. And on top of this, universities have had to rise to the challenge to continue with their teaching commitments.
Below, I share some specific examples on how UWS and its researchers helped the country during the pandemic:
The UWS School of Health and Life Sciences, jointly with the University of Stirling’s Health Sciences and Sport, developed a facemask prototype in a partnership with ARC; this facemask helps prevent the spread of Coronavirus. In addition, an innovative Covid-19 training solution for healthcare professionals – based on gaming technology – has developed through a collaboration involving UWS, Edinburgh Napier University and NHS Education for Scotland (NES) (3). Furthermore, academics from UWS have played a key role in the production of innovative thin film-based chips that will help prevent the spread of coronavirus. Working in partnership with Glenrothes-based semi-conductor foundry Semefab, UWS researchers have produced the technology that embedded in non-contact thermometers, with the firm receiving orders for more than 12 million of the chips from across the world (4). UWS had coverage wide coverage for the first-of-its-kind research into the impact of menstrual cycles on elite sporting performance (5). Moreover, UWS researchers led a Covid-19 rapid research project funded by the Scottish Government on the impact of social distancing and isolation on physical and mental health. The project will assess changes in people’s activity from both before and during lockdown, by collecting data from individuals’ wearable technology and using a new, specially-designed, app to examine the differences (6). UWS students and graduates have played their part too: an award-winning graduate apprentice engineer has helped to produce ventilators, saving lives nationwide. He undertook a Graduate Apprenticeship (GA) with Wishaw-based precision engineering firm Swissmatic, with the learning component provided by UWS (7). Two UWS student nurses have documented their experiences just over a month since joining the frontline fight against coronavirus on the COVID ward at NHSGGC Royal Alexandra Hospital in Paisley (8) – they talk about what it is like to join the workforce as band four student nurses during the global pandemic.
Integrated thinking at a micro level was happening within and across departments in universities too: For example, HEIs worked closely with their IT departments to have the reliable infrastructure that allowed continuous and timely communication with both staff and students. Institutions faced an unprecedented challenge of the sudden to move online education, requiring leadership, creativity, agility and not least cooperation to reinvent delivery and implement how to run campus operations virtually.
Focusing on my own institution, there was a significant evidence of integrated thinking. For example, the ‘People and Organisation Development’ department (P&OD) quickly provided support for managers, with sessions on mindfulness, coping strategies, and positive thinking. They went further, and offered sessions on mental health, student/staff welfare resources, how to be able to cope with stress. The research service department at the Doctoral College also offered exceptional support by facilitating research fund calls related to Covid-19 and continuing to offer first class routine support/help for academics; this includes the Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) group and the 'wonderful and amazing' contribution they offered to businesses, academic staff and students. The IT department worked diligently and tirelessly to help both staff and students, dealing with an unlimited number of queries to allow everyone to have Virtual Private Network (VPN) to access their office computers from home. In addition, they offered continuous training sessions for staff on teaching platforms, how to record videos, etc. Furthermore, the UWS academy contributed enormously to teach and assess Advance HE Fellowship categories.
The forced move to the digitalisation of higher education in terms of teaching, learning and assessment, posed significant challenges, including adopting to the technical infrastructure, competence and pedagogies, and to meet the requirements to specific fields of study and, of course, the needs of students. Staff face difficult challenges, including upskilling with technology to be able to provide the same service virtually. There was a need for a shift in the mind-sets. For the university to do so, it had to communicate with a variety of stakeholders, including external examiners, quality assurance department, education futures department, exam units, exam boards, professional services, and the professional bodies. All parties committed to one aim: ensuring that students could continue learning, complete their term, and obtain their academic qualifications in a safe environment.
Every department in the whole institution worked ‘around the clock’ to find solutions to cope with this exceptional situation to offer the same – or as near – as learning experience to students as face-to-face. While academics were focusing on transferring their teaching material to suit the new way of delivery, other services – library, students’ support services, timetabling, wellbeing support, students’ union, education enhancement, students’ engagement, students’ association, etc, made invaluable contributions to the student experience.
UWS decided to implement a hybrid approach to learning, including asynchronous (pre-recorded videos) and synchronous (live sessions) to try to provide the best learning experience to students. To design the teaching material for the new term, I led on this particular project: "Investigating students’ support for learning experience during COVID-19 & the way forward” (9).
Based on students’ responses and needs, I developed teaching material and shared the results of the project with the whole university. Focusing on mental health and positive thinking during staff-student contact time helped to lift students and to build their resilience (10). Each school now runs more regular 'meeting & drop-in' sessions to share the good practice and to deal with any concerns in relation to teaching; and there is similar support for PhD students too.
Based on the above discussion, it is clear that integrated thinking within UWS internal departments/units collaborated and worked together, and collectively contributed to manage the Covid-19 crisis.
In conclusion, I have tried to illustrate how universities are so crucial to society and demonstrate the importance of research and expertise of HEIs; and value of ‘integrated thinking’ and ‘working together approach’ are to achieve any planned aim.
In the words of my Dean, “we should be kind to ourselves and kind to each other to be able to survive in this crisis”.
- Integrated thinking is defined as “the reflection of connectivity and interdependencies between various factors which affect an organisation`s value creation capacity” (King IV, 2016 p. 13). Integrated thinking is linked to the strategic management process and can facilitate organizational operation by changing the whole organizational culture through collaboration between different internal units to gain a better understanding and appreciate the impact of their behaviour and decision on their organization`s stakeholders (Del Baldo, 2017). The recent studies (Hassan et al., 2019 and Adhikariparajul, et al., 2020) recommended the adoption of integrated thinking in UK Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) that make the connection and the interdependence between its internal units crucial to provide relevant information to stakeholders on value creation.
- New facemask could help slow spread of Covid-19 (2020). https://www.uws.ac.uk/news/new-facemask-could-help-slow-spread-of-covid-19/
- Gaming Technology to boost coronavirus traning for healthcare workers. https://www.uws.ac.uk/about-uws/uws-together/covid-19-gaming-tech/
- Cutting edge anti-coronavirus technology produced through UWS Partnership (2020) https://www.uws.ac.uk/news/cutting-edge-anti-coronavirus-technology-produced-through-uws-partnership/
- The impact of coronavirous lockdown on mental and physical health (2020). https://www.uws.ac.uk/news/impact-of-coronavirus-lockdown-on-mental-and-physical-health-examined/
- UWS Engineer helps create life-saving ventilators (2020) https://www.uws.ac.uk/news/uws-engineer-helps-create-life-saving-ventilators/
- UWS Nurses share front line Covid dairies (2020). https://www.uws.ac.uk/news/uws-nurses-share-frontline-covid-diaries/
- Adhikariparajuli, M., Hassan, A., Fletcher, M., & Elamer, A. (2020) Integrated Reporting in Higher Education: Insights from Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. Social Responsibility Journal. https://doi.org/10.1108/SRJ-01-2019-003.
- Del Baldo, M. (2017), “The implementation of integrated reporting <IR> in SMEs: insights from a pioneering experience in Italy”, Meditari Accountancy Research, Vol. 25 No. 4, pp. 505-532.
- Hassan, A., Adhikariparajuli, M., Fletcher, M., & Elamer, A. A. (2019). Integrated Reporting in UK Higher Education Institutions. Sustainability Accounting and Policy Journal, 10 (5), 844 - 876.
- King Report IV, (2016), Corporate Governance for South Africa (2016). available at: https://www.oidsa.co.za/resource/resmgr/king/_iv_Report/IoDSA_King_IV_Report_-_WebVe.pdf