Individuals in Action: Bringing about Innovation in Higher Education by Sandra Hasanefendic, Julie M. Birkholz, Hugo Horta and Peter van der Sijde

Sandra Hasanefendic (Vrjie University Amsterdam, the Netherlands and Instituto Universitário de Lisboa (ISCTE-IUL), Lisbon, Portugal), Julie M. Birkholz (Center for Higher Education Governance Ghent (CHEGG), Ghent University, Belgium), Hugo Horta (Division of Policy, Administration and Social Sciences Education, Faculty of Education, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong SAR, China) and Peter van der Sijde (Vrije University Amsterdam, the Netherlands)

Human capital as driver of innovation has long been recognized, and more than ever before, whom you have in your organization matters. Having the right people in higher education is perhaps even more important because universities are struggling to cope with massive changes in global, regional and national socioeconomic landscapes. They need to keep up the pace of recent developments and readjust bureaucratic processes, institutionalized norms and traditions, and for this to happen, mentalities need to change. Our study shows that leaders in higher education matter for change and in driving universities onto a brave new world of constant transformation and uncertainty.

In our recent publication at European Journal of Higher Education, we studied six academics who innovated the curriculum in diverse and highly institutionalized higher education settings. The findings highlight their skills and abilities to strategically network, and gain resources and legitimacy for change through their internal and external networks. In this context, our study shows that innovation will only occur if academics feel intrinsically motivated, but this motivation is also influenced by extrinsic features. The motivation that the case-studied academics had come from a desire to do their profession justice. The case studied academics were training graduates with sufficient quality to thrive in labor markets, and feel responsible for the young people they trained. This seems to be the core motivating factor for our academics to innovate the curriculum.

The question is not what makes one person more innovative than another, but rather how to create opportunities in higher education to enhance the innovative potential of academics. This study urges policymakers to reconsider the rules of the game in higher education which revolve around sometimes simplistic academic assessment and rankings (often promoted by managerial ideals and practices). University policies too focused on outputs are not forthcoming of innovation needed for universities to keep pace with change in increasingly “glocal” labor markets and societies. In adapting to this turbulent environment and remaining relevant while maintaining their institutional integrity, universities need to provide more conducive environments for academics to create, develop, and innovate. Promoting networking in diverse forms is important, but our article underlines the extensive experience in and out of higher education in fostering the creation of innovative academics. This means that universities should stimulate the mobility of academics, particularly inter-sectoral mobility to public and private non-academic sector. Career progression schemes should consider this mobility as potentially as valuable as other key features, since it bears value and meaning for personal development, career growth, and networking opportunities. If universities want to bring about innovation, they must care and stimulate academics for them to be individuals in action.


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