#Take5 #66 Influencing University Strategy and Vision: Or at least trying to

As a Learning Developer how do you influence University policy and practice?

This #Take5 post is brought to you from Carina Buckley, Instructional Design Manager at Solent University, and Kate Coulson, Head of Learning and Teaching Enhancement (formerly Head of Learning Development), at the University of Northampton. Here they share their experiences of influencing strategy and the long-term visions at their institutions, or at least trying to! The blog post concludes with an invitation to join the emerging Leadership and management Community of Practice.

Sound and vision: Introducing leadership

“Influencing”, “Visions” and “Strategy” – all seemingly ethereal concepts when you are fresh out of school or university. We wish we had been offered a module as undergraduates which had equipped us with at least a basic understanding of these concepts and how to be good at them! Nowadays the module would be called “Employability Skills” or something similar but we weren’t taught these concepts or how to go about “doing” them. Instead throughout our careers we have been trying to influence by stealth, without even realising what we were doing. Here we talk about our current roles and how we try to influence strategy.

Solent University: Dr Carina Buckley

Picture: Carina Buckley

I began working at Solent in 2010 as the learning skills tutor. Solent had never had one before and didn’t really know what to do with me, and being brand new to the institution, I didn’t know what to do with me either. Then I became the Instructional Design manager in 2015, and no one anywhere knew what one of those was either. When your remit is small or unclear (or both, as mine was), the idea of influencing anything seems impossible. 

Getting to know you…

However, what I did have was a solid legacy of good work with lots of students and lecturers, which allowed me to get to know a lot of people and for them to get to know me. A living, functioning community is a web of relationships, built on coffee (tea, in my case) and conversations that might be about work and might not. It’s not about being strategic; it’s about being integrated, curious and welcoming to those around you.

And when people know you, they’ll think of you when something in your area comes up in theirs.

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Picture: The butterfly effect: small actions can have a greater outcome (Photo: Rhett Maxwell, Flickr)

Finding space for influence

Last year my team assumed an unfamiliar prominence with the shift to online teaching and learning, our expertise in engaging students suddenly in demand. Solent’s relatively new Head of Learning and Teaching was tasked with leading a monumental change in delivery but, having been on campus for only five months, hadn’t the chance to get to know many people and was finding it hard to gain traction.

She did know me, though, thanks to a couple of coffees together. And I knew a lot of people.

The Transformation Academy was our joint response to what was asked of us as a university, a huge project to transform the teaching and learning culture at Solent. My goal was to ensure a student-centred approach, and through my on-going conversations with the Head of L&T, I could position our transformation to embrace more fully the values I had brought with me from my work as a learning developer: community and collaboration, inclusivity and connection.

My team have benefitted too in that they have been able to build relationships with many more staff, and their successes have been fed up the hierarchical ladder by the Head of L&T. They know many people now too, and so the web of connections continues to grow.

This form of leadership – because that’s what it is – has served me well and it’s something available to anyone, regardless of having a formal leadership role or line management responsibilities. If you’d like to explore leadership more, whatever position you might be in, you’d be very welcome to join the new Leadership & Management Community of Practice, on Tuesday 14th December at 11am. Email me for the link – no experience necessary!

Picture: Carina, hangin’ with the VC

University of Northampton: Kate Coulson

If someone had told me when I graduated that most of my working life would focus on “influencing others” I would never have believed them! Obviously, I do lots of other things but in the last few years, and particularly since early 2020 I have spent a lot of time and energy on modelling excellent student experience and encouraging others to take on board what the Learning Development team (LDT) at the University of Northampton (UON) are doing and where possible, incorporating it into their approaches too.

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Picture: Kate Coulson

This approach has been strengthened particularly since UON was awarded TEF Gold in 2017 and the LDT were referred to on five separate occasions within the submission about LD initiatives:

  • The expansion of the Learning Development provision (increasing “visits” from 3,000 to 12,000+ within 3 years)
  • The LDT’s work with BAME students (projects to increase engagement)
  • The impact of an LDT-designed and -led study skills MOOC (2,000 participants and a 34% completion rate compared to an average of 12.6%) on self-reported confidence of students
  • The impact of LDT work upon attainment rates (students can improve their grade by 2 to 4 sub-grades by working with the LDT)
  • Interaction with Black, Asian and minority ethnic students and the impact upon the award gap.

The TEF Gold award was a platform for our voice to be heard at UON; we had proved that we could deliver excellent initiatives. Since then I have been involved with how the learning and teaching approach at UON was changed during the pandemic. By being included in consultation processes, being asked to lead some of those processes and being a member of the “Student Support Forum” (a new University-wide group that has met every fortnight since March 2020) sends a strong signal that the LD experts at UON are considered important in decision making.

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Picture: Student image of the strategic plan

At the start of May, I also changed jobs: I moved from being Head of Learning Development to the Head of Learning and Teaching Enhancement – a multi-disciplinary team incorporating LD, Learning Designers, Educational Linguistics, Academic Integrity and Academic Development. I see this as a win for Learning Development as a community; a learning developer directly leading and influencing the learning and teaching strategy of an institution. And I plan to do this in the same way as my work as an LDer – collegially, in partnership and utilising the skills available across the institution to inform action and practice. For me, this is the opportunity to not only influence strategy and vision but a chance to initiate, drive and shape it.

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Picture: We are all connected


What are the potential “takeaways” from this post? We know that all LDers are probably influencing others in their day-to-day work a lot of the time. It might be something seemingly straightforward such as modelling exemplary practice: colleagues then observe this approach and take something away to include in their practice or reflect upon. At the other end of the “influencing” spectrum you might be directly involved in shaping and creating new institutional approaches, policies or strategies – and then there is everything in-between.

To that end we invite you to do some “homework” after reading this post. We encourage you to reflect on how you are influencing others in your work. What are you already doing? What are you good at? Who knows you, and what you know and do? Where could you improve this ‘knowing’ and finally, what could you share with others? If you feel brave enough, do add something to our padlet and we will follow-up this blog post with an update in the new year.

Next steps?

Our new Community of Practice in Leadership & Management launches next Tuesday 14th at 11am. We welcome anyone who is keen to know more – no previous experience necessary and you don’t have to line manage anyone. We can all lead, regardless of job description, so come along and share your thoughts and hear from others. The more voices in the conversation, the more we can all learn!

Contact Carina for the link: carina.buckley@solent.ac.uk


Carina is the Instructional Design Manager at Solent University and also the Treasurer of ALDinHE. Her first job after completing her PhD (in the Archaeology of Human Evolution – would score low on an employability rating) was as a learning developer working with mature Foundation degree students at Portsmouth University, and she never looked back. Fourteen years later she is a Principal Fellow of the HEA and a Certified Leading Practitioner in Learning Development, and in what she laughingly calls her spare time she writes fiction, in anticipation of a future radical career change.

Kate is the Head of Learning and Teaching Enhancement at the University of Northampton and is also the Secretary of ALDinHE. She has worked in HE for over 10 years in a variety of roles as a librarian and learning developer and has led teams in both areas. In her previous life she worked in the City of London but realised she needed to be somewhere where she could use her creativity every day. Kate is a Senior Fellow of the HEA, a professionally qualified librarian, a Certified Leading Practitioner in Learning Development and is about to embark on her doctorate (after years of avoiding it – but that’s another blog post!)

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