Systems Thinking: Tools for strategic problem solving in higher education | AUA Blog

Over the last decade, I transformed from being an inhabitant of a windy Scottish coastal town as a student where reciting Old English was the norm, to working at one of the largest creative institutions in Europe. Fast forward, and I’m now continuing my university journey by participating in Online Learning through an MSc in Systems Thinking, as well as specialising in quality assurance at an innovative modern university in London.

Emma Akinlusi MAUA
Quality Assurance Officer
University of East London

Occupying a variety of educational environments, both virtual and actual, surely ignites curiosity around not only organisational optimisation, but seeing clearly through an often crowded Johari window to enhance the impact of our role in working with others. Inherent in breaking down any silos is understanding different stakeholder perspectives; for example the reconfiguration of students as active, rather than passive, beneficiaries of education should not be underestimated.

Whether it may be devising methodologies to implement regulatory policies and procedures, or providing advice to ensure rigor in approaches to support the student experience, in Higher Education it is fortunate we are afforded the opportunity to engage with a matrix of priorities – operational vs strategic; local vs national, and therefore could benefit from key systems thinking principles. Systems Dynamics and Critical Systems Heuristics enable us to observe the dynamics between issue properties and stakeholders, where inter-dependencies lie, and identifying where obstructions may exist. A particularly relevant example I can think of includes researching sector aspects which could affect student perception of value for money.

I’m currently undertaking a study of Social Learning Systems and Communities of Practice, with a focus on questions the sector has raised concerning Degree Classification. Systems thinking provides insight into the role of the government and its delegated bodies as a system for public learning, as well as the emergence of ideas in good currency, which considers where adaptivity may be needed for situations subject to fluctuation.

This integration of theory with practice should encourage rumination on how systemic inquiry can be employed within local contexts, to seek specificity in outcomes, whether they can be solved, resolved, dissolved or absolved. This has wider application to Higher Education, given the range of complexities which emerge from internal and external sector co-dynamics – think the Augar Review, TEF, Student Fees, Brexit, unconditional offers, and social mobility among others.

Helpfully, I have learned that at least some of these could be defined as ‘wicked’ or ‘messy’ problems – where strategic lessons could potentially be learned by dismantling issues through systemic methods of inquiry. Systems thinking as a discipline expands on the concept of a ‘system’. Often the semantics of this word infer a systematic understanding of an ecological, technological or ethnological network, but less often does it encourage deep systemic learning to take place.

Delving into systems thinking as a discipline can be appealing because of its wide applicability to strategic thinking across a number of different domains; as technology allows the world to become smaller, we are operating within a ‘Global Village’ – whether our endeavours are linked to Transnational Education, Erasmus, or International student outreach. Indeed, systems practice can help make explicit the substance behind good decision-making when operating in an environment subject to varying historical, political and economic drivers.

Of course the Higher Education sector benefits from ongoing analysis of emergent governmental policy, which we can all engage with across the news, sector platforms and Twitter; therefore I see value in collectively engaging in learning that could contribute to ensuring the Higher Education sector is fit for the future. When we question our inquiry processes, hopefully we can add further value to policy development and implementation, in line with the inevitable changes to unfold, in the years to come.

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