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Higher education leadership at a time of health crisis and technological change


United Board Leadership Summit 2021



The United Board Leadership Summit 2021, held online this April, was hosted, jointly, by the School of Graduate Studies of Lingnan University and the United Board for Christian Higher Education in Asia. The United Board is an organisation that works in collaboration with colleges and universities across Asia to promote whole-person education.


The theme of the two-day summit, which featured a range of distinguished speakers, was ‘Rethinking Higher Education Leadership during and after COVID-19 Pandemic’.



The need for leadership that cares and connects


After welcoming participants to the event, and thanking the United Board for their efforts over the years, Ka Ho Mok, Vice President, and Chair Professor, of Lingnan University, delivered an address titled, Be a Transformative Leader: Learning to Serve and Serving to Learn.


“This crisis has humbled everyone, including myself,” Prof Mok said. The summit, he went on, was a forum for stakeholders in the higher education process to share both their coping strategies, and the lessons they’ve learnt, during the pandemic. “But the central message generated by us is about togetherness – and how collaboration is so important.”


Prof Mok went on to characterise a transformational leader as someone who: motivates their followers; exemplifies moral standards within their organisation; and who fosters an ethical work environment. The challenge, he added, is to do all this while still prompting innovation and creativity.


During the current COVID crisis, caring leadership is crucial when people begin to lose hope, he said. While decisive leadership can find new opportunities amid the disruption.


During the first summer of the pandemic, Lingnan University launched its ‘Fighting COVID-19@Lingnan’ campaign. This campaign has comprised a series of projects to care for the wider community, helping and supporting groups such as the elderly and those struggling with the psychological effects of the crisis.


Within Lingnan itself, a number of pandemic-inspired changes were made and programmes launched. After a survey found that students were unhappy with online learning, the university moved to a hybrid mode and, when health conditions permitted, back to onsite learning."We believe the interaction between the faculty member and students, along with peer learning, is so important," Prof Mok explained.


The School of Graduate Studies also introduced initiatives to connect students to the research and learning community - locally, nationally and internationally - and established a graduate support fund.


Prof Mok concluded by gratefully and humbly acknowledging the way in which the efforts of everyone associated with Lingnan had been recognised in the latest Times Higher Education rankings. Among 1200 universities, from 94 countries, Lingnan was rated in the top three for quality education.



Leadership on the path through the pandemic to a 4th industrial revolution future


The Summit’s keynote dialogue session focused on ‘Academic Leadership at the Confluence of the 4th Industrial Revolution and the COVID Pandemic’ and featured presentations by two of the Asia Pacific region’s notable academics.


The 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR) is based on the growing fusion of physical technology, software and biology. In response to the disruption wrought by the pandemic, the speed at which higher education institutions were engaging with the 4IR has accelerated, and some of the innovations adopted may become permanent features of the future higher education landscape.


Deane Neubauer, Emeritus Professor and Former Vice President of the University of Hawai’i, began his contribution by outlining four ways in which the research process will benefit from currently advancing technologies. These are: through the cutting of costs and timelines; the transformation of operations; enhancements to the research and development process; and by facilitating innovation. Together these improvements can help democratise creativity, he said.


Prof Neubauer went on to identify a number of trends in higher education that are facilitated by, or hastening the adoption of, 4IR technology.


Teachers are increasingly attempting to spur students' creativity, imagination, and critical thinking, while at the same promoting their interest and joy in learning. The latest digital tools are giving students the choice of when and where to learn, inside and outside the classroom. While the role of teachers is changing from 'the sage on the stage' to 'the guy at your side'. There is also a movement away from standardised examinations, to continuous and personalised assessments.


In her presentation, Professor Ngo Thi Phuong Lan, President, University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Vietnam National University, described the forces currently impacting on higher education in her country.


The demand for the internationalisation of higher education has become more pressing than ever, Prof Ngo noted, and the introduction of a new education law has increased the external and internal pressures on institutional autonomy, especially when it comes to finance.


The new 4IR technology has had a huge effect on all parts of Vietnamese society, and these developments, together with the disruption caused by the COVID pandemic, have led to an increased willingness to embrace change, such as in a shift to online learning. “Effective teaching needs to be predicated on an understanding of how students learn,” Prof Ngo explained.


What’s more, as it seeks to equip its students for a changing employment landscape, her university recognises that its teaching needs to be more concerned with empowering students, rather than with the simple transfer of knowledge.


“Leadership is (about) creating an enabling environment, so members of an institution can develop their capabilities to the fullest extent and maximise their potential,” she concluded.