Rajani Naidoo is Professor and Director of the International Centre for Higher Education Management (ICHEM) at the University of Bath; UNESCO Chair of Higher Education Management; and Visiting Professor at Nelson Mandela University in South Africa.

ICHEM is part of the School of Management, and its programmes are helping to produce higher education leaders who combine research and advanced management practice to develop and share policy and management innovations.

Emma Hunt is one such leader. She graduated from the DBA in 2017 and is currently the Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the Arts University Bournemouth, UK. Emma was also a member of the United Kingdom Parliamentary Design Commission and a member of the steering group for the influential Design Education Inquiry in 2011. Among other external work she is currently a Board member of the Local Enterprise Partnership and a Board member of the Cultural Enquiry funded by the Arts Council.

Here, Emma speaks with Rajani about what makes the DBA so special; lessons in leadership; and the competition fetish.

Emma Hunt: I wouldn't be where I am today if it wasn't for the DBA. What do you think makes it so special?

Rajani Naidoo: Interacting with amazing participants from all over the world like you! We attract senior managers who have already achieved a lot professionally, and who wish to apply research to advance their leadership and management practice. We’re the only doctoral programme in Higher Education Management within a business school, which gives us distinction and makes us interdisciplinary. We also recruit globally – we have participants from Latin America, Africa, Europe, Scandinavia, the USA, India, China, and Canada. This creates incredible peer-learning and networking opportunities.

That's what attracted me to the DBA. My cohort and I have remained brilliant friends and colleagues, and I now have a network across the world that I wouldn't have had without the programme. What do you think are the defining moments that help cohorts gel?

For me, it’s that very first time when the whole cohort comes together in the seminar room. It’s always exciting because suddenly you have people from different countries and different types of higher education institutions, who are all very aspirational and interested in pushing both research and professional practice further. That's always a defining moment and, like your cohort, they all immediately bond. Defining moments also occur when groups engage in future scenario planning; or when members disagree with one another about a thorny issue but listen respectfully; and then go out for dinner together and bond further.

You’re very inspirational – not only as the Director of ICHEM, but as Head of the Race Equality Task Force at Bath; your work with universities in Africa and Colombia; and your role at UNESCO. What can HE leaders take away from your experiences and contributions to HE globally?

I really believe that If you wish to contribute to positive change, it’s important to understand why the change is so valuable. Understanding the barriers, the opportunities and the trade-offs is crucial. I take overall responsibility in the areas that I lead, but the only way to achieve success is to work collegially with academic and professional services colleagues and I am really lucky that I work in a team that is so brilliant!

I also believe in acknowledging the work of colleagues. Sometimes managers can take implicit credit for the hands-on work done by others. We tend to recognise colleagues that are skilled in self-presentation while those who are quieter fall off our radar. I try to make their invisible work visible.

I avoid ‘management speak’ which sounds impressive but has little content. I try to use language that's meaningful, that I can act on, and where we can really show change.

My UNESCO work and my collaboration with universities in Africa and Latin America have shown me how important it is to go beyond Anglo-Saxon models and learn about innovations in policy and leadership from across the world.

What lessons do you think HE leaders can take away from the pandemic?

The pandemic has revealed many fault lines in our societies. What was exciting was to realise that our virtual research seminars could reach large global audiences of 300 and more. At the same time, we have seen how people that have less advantages have been placed in more of a vulnerable position due to Covid-19, and that includes the participants on our programmes.

For example, we have a global DBA programme and we also have a DBA in South Africa, which the South African government asked us to run for all their universities. South Africa has an HE system that was based on apartheid, so we have some managers in universities in poor neighbourhoods, which lack connectivity. When we moved our programme online, some participants couldn’t access seminars, and the disparity within our own DBA community became apparent. This has made us more aware of how to provide better support to all members of our community.

What has made me very proud is how universities have been such an important source of innovation in the context of the pandemic; and how many of our staff and students have volunteered to provide support.

Your work on the ‘competition fetish’ of universities is timely. Do you think that institutional competition will have to change as global issues are now so huge that we need to take a more collaborative approach?

I think competition is so deeply ingrained, and that's part of the reason why I call it a fetish. There is a blind belief that competition will solve all of the problems of higher education, that it will create better quality, more equity, and less risk. I think it's very important to acknowledge where competition works and where it's appropriate, and to push back against it where it leads to dysfunctional consequences.

Part of the problem is that mechanisms such as rankings don't measure some key roles of higher education such as social justice, calling truth to power, or how higher education can contribute to the global good. It pushes all universities to compete against narrow criteria, which stops different types of universities undertaking different missions. I think crisis situations like the pandemic, which are global in nature, have shown us the importance of collaboration across countries and I hope the lessons learnt remain with us into the future.

What are you most proud of?

I'm so thankful to Professor Richard Mawditt for his vision in setting up the DBA and ICHEM [in 1994], and what makes me very proud is that both have really grown in reputation for criticality, innovation and global reach. We’ve now welcomed our 20th cohort. We've started an MA in International Higher Education Management for participants who aspire to senior leadership roles; we have the UNESCO chair; and the German federal government has noted that we are one of the most visible and innovative research centres on higher education.

What also makes me proud is when our participants publish; when they use the research on the DBA to change their organisation for the better; and when people advance their careers and become vice-chancellors, presidents, deputy vice-chancellors and government ministers and so on.

ICHEM brings together DBA and MA participants and alumni with academic faculty and senior leaders to form a passionate globally networked community and I am so proud that we have retained this connection across so many years and across countries – the fact that the pride and excitement is still there is amazing.

Thank you Rajani, I am sure you will continue to inspire many more DBA graduates into the future and we cannot thank you enough!