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Lessons in liminality

Image: Willy Barton, via Shutterstock

Nic Beech writes about what he’s learned from becoming a vice-chancellor six weeks before lockdown

When I started as vice-chancellor at Middlesex University on 1 February, little did I know that within a matter of weeks the university would be doing all its teaching and assessment online, would be running extensive manufacturing of personal protective equipment and would have its student nurses and police apprentices working on the NHS and community front line.

Nor did I envisage our research refocusing on areas as diverse as developing a rapid test for Covid-19, exploring the pressures from the pandemic on couples and investigating how to protect children from online abuse during lockdown. Like everyone, I was catapulted into a confluence of personal, professional, organisational and worldwide change.

I had enjoyed a six-week period walking around the campus and meeting as many students and staff as possible. The plan was to get to know the people and the place before developing a strategy for the university.

Looking back, I was fortunate to have these initial weeks to get a feel for the university’s culture and to realise that while there was great variety in the disciplines taught at Middlesex, the same community spirit was apparent throughout.

Then we were rudely interrupted by a global pandemic. I was trying to learn at a distance while an incredible strain was put on students, staff and the whole organisation. It helped that I was joining a well-established team and that formal and informal mentoring was in place, including the remarkable generosity and comradeship of established vice-chancellors from across higher education.

Shared purpose

Interestingly, online meetings resulted in de-bureaucratisation and a lowering of hierarchies. As several people put it: “The stripes were left at the door.” In our emergency Covid-19 response team, expertise and ability to adapt mattered much more than hierarchical position when working on student welfare, mental health or online teaching. The community may have been physically decentred, but it was recentred in a shared purpose and way of being.

Perhaps fortunately, one of my research themes is liminality—the experience of disjunction and unsettledness as people go through life transitions. Ethnographic studies have highlighted the processes that can smooth the pathway of liminal transitions, as people change kinship relations through marriage, for example, or—with relevance to higher education—as people cease being students and become graduates and employees, leaving one social group and set of rules and entering the uncertainty of seeking to join another.

In the complex and dynamic settings in which we now find ourselves, personal and interpersonal stress and the potential for conflict can increase considerably. It is fair to say that the current circumstances are ‘off the scale’ for multiplicities of liminality happening at the same time.

While this has been a health and economic crisis, for a university and for higher education it highlights certain questions and opportunities. Although we are in the midst of change and liminality, some things also show continuity. Perhaps most important is the continuity in values, and in the Middlesex community two values that have come to the fore are compassion for others and agile innovativeness.

There is an opportunity to recognise and support elements of the culture that strengthen and extend the impact of the community. This can include unshackling the culture from the more constraining impacts of bureaucracy that unintentionally blossom in large organisations. And significant reductions in everyday actions, from travel and building occupancy to printing, have made it possible to think about environmental impacts in how we work. No doubt there will be opportunities for long-term changes to working practices that could have environmental benefits.

Learning culture

Importantly, there are also opportunities to work more effectively in partnership with students. One of the most rewarding things about being an academic is to spend time with students and listen to their thoughts and passions and see the work they are doing. While this has been more difficult during Covid-19, it has still been possible to meet regularly with the students’ union to work together on shared issues, and to meet groups of students through events such as the final-year virtual art show.

We have also increased skills for staff and students so that different learning styles can operate more effectively. Blended learning is nothing new and we have long combined synchronous face-to-face and asynchronous individual studying. But we are now able to provide enhanced materials that people can access at times and in ways that fit the demands of their lives.

People can work together on project-based learning in teams drawn from across our campus in London and our three international campuses, perhaps to tackle a current issue in a partner company or organisation. This kind of approach can increase skills in cross-cultural team-working for students who cannot—for a range of reasons—study abroad.

Lastly, opportunities have increased in research and knowledge exchange to collaborate across physical and cognitive boundaries. Focusing on societal challenges helps draw us into debates that cross thresholds—another form of liminality and one that offers the chance to be creative.

It is easy for both the problems and opportunities offered by Covid-19 to overwhelm, particularly when everyone is working so hard to adapt to new demands, use technologies in ways that are new to them and cope with personal and familial health, social and psychological situations. So my core lesson over the past few months has been the importance of fostering a learning culture. This means drawing attention to and fostering university values, recognising the challenges, seeking to reduce the stress and encouraging people to lift their eyes and have ambition for the future.

Nic Beech is vice-chancellor of Middlesex University.