Part of eadtu white

Agile, collaborative academic decision-making at scale and speed


The disruption from the COVID-19 pandemic required HEIs around the world to adapt and change at great speed. When the first national lockdown in England was announced on 23 March 2020, over 130,000 students at The Open University, UK, were about to complete their modules and, for over 10,000 of them, their degrees. Supporting students to pass the final assessment of their modules became a non-negotiable priority. The wellbeing of students and OU staff was at stake.

Action taken

The university stood up an Emergency Management Team, with subgroups such as the Academic Implications Group (AIG). This group is at the core of this case study. AIG was tasked to ensure that informed decisions are made and then implemented effectively across the university. This included temporary changes to academic policy and the operational delivery of assessment, tuition and student support. Chaired by the Deputy Vice-Chancellor, AIG included representatives from academic and professional services units, along with senior executive members of the OU Students Association and Associate Lecturer community. Each member was invited to represent their stakeholder group(s) and facilitate two-way communication channels to these groups. This helped to push temporary policies into faculties and professional service units, and to get feedback from staff and students experiences of these temporary measures. All members contributed towards a common university goal: to support student success and maintain the academic integrity and quality standards as required by national regulators and quality assurance bodies in the four nations of the United Kingdom.

Twelve months after the first meeting, AIG was discontinued, and decision making moved back into pre-pandemic existing groups and processes.

Mode of operation

Initially, the group met weekly initially to work through the implications of decisions such as moving exams online, cancelling final assessments where possible, relax rules about submission extensions, discretionary postponement of final assessed tasks, consideration of special circumstances, as well as standardisation of marks and module results awarding processes. After about seven months, the group met every other week: by then key decisions had been taken and the group was now considering emerging issues from the ongoing pandemic and the national response to this.

To illustrate the complexity of AIG decision making: When face2face exams were moved online in March/April, the group decided not to change the exam questions so not to introduce errors from hastily amended exam papers. Moving closed book exam papers online required greater standardisation of results and several approaches were considered. Students needed help to understand the complex ways of determining module results. Resit examinations in September were subsequently adapted to the new delivery mode. All of this needed to be communicated at the right time, at the right level of detail, and adapted to the assessment context of each module.

Good practices

Reflecting on the work of this group over 12 months and discussing it with colleagues, the following points stand out:

1. Common purpose: The pandemic provided a strong identification with the core purpose of the group: maximise student success during Covid19 while staying true to academic integrity and standards. It united colleagues in a way that is perhaps not always present in existing governance and management meetings.

2. Urgency: Doing nothing was not an option during the pandemic year. Whatever the differences in perspectives and opinions between staff and students, the group needed to come up with decisions and actions quickly. It also meant colleagues were working over and above their normal workload. Such workloads are not sustainable in the medium term, but there was also a sense of achievement when students got their results and knew they could continue with their studies, change their careers, or start employment without delay. For key workers in the National Health Service, we ratified results to students outside normal schedules so students could commence new jobs that relied on the early award of the OU qualification. The work of the group thus contributed directly to the national effort to address the pandemic by increasing resourcing in Health professions.

3. Listening and being heard: Listening to the voices in the (MS Teams) room was the predominant mode of working. As decisions had to be made, not everybody’s view could be accommodated, but the chair ensured that all members were heard, and their views considered even if decisions went a different way. The right balance between consulting and making decisions can be delicate and sometimes lead to too much discussion with no action or the opposite. In the AIG, one might argue, the balance was about right. The style of chairing and the recording of dissenting voices could be seen as essential for this outcome.

4. Student partnership: Student involvement was crucial as their representatives helped get the message right and bring back feedback from students as the pandemic progressed. Students were invited from the start, not as an afterthought, and the president of the OU Student Association confirmed that this appears to have now become more common in the university’s governance and management practice. 

5. Professionalising communication: Having a dedicated team of communication experts helped turning good decisions into good news releases to staff and students. Early on in the process, we did not get this right all the time and this caused confusion, but over time, messaging improved and delivered the desired results. There is now greater awareness about the role of communication on other projects and change programmes. Good work can come undone if communication has not been considered appropriately.

6. Cross-university membership: The group effectively brought academic governance and university management at one table with the right people present to balance staff and student management with academic quality assurance and standards. These functions are traditionally more separated at the Open University. A new Academic Policy Management Group may take over some of the functions of the AIG and thereby link management and academic governance going forward, ready for future emergencies. In the panel discussion following her opening keynote at I-HE 2021 conference, reflecting on the question by the chair about what had stood out for panel members during the pandemic, the Open University UK Deputy Vice Chancellor Josie Fraser recalled the collaborative and effective work of the Academic Implications Group that had contributed in great measure to student success during the 2020 pandemic year.

Logo European Commission 'co-funded by the Erasmus+ Programme of the European Union

Funded by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the European Education and Culture Executive Agency (EACEA). Neither the European Union nor EACEA can be held responsible for them.