A sabbatical or Research and Study Leave period is a time for renewal and rejuvenation. Used well, it is an opportunity for mental and physical renewal and exploration of creative pursuits.
In applying for Research and Study Leave, the university requires quite detailed information on the goals of the applicant, expected tangible outcomes, benefits to the awarding university, personal and professional development. The Leave is a luxury but certainly not a holiday!
In my case my overarching goal at the outset of my leave was to carry out research on leadership in higher education with the longer term aim of publishing a single authored book on this topic. This was a new research focus for me. Leadership in higher education is an under-researched topic. As universities are constantly being challenged to change and almost re-invent themselves to align with shifting conceptions of the purpose of higher education, it is time to explore leadership in higher education, to take our role as role models seriously and to understand how to build leadership capability and capacity, as a critical aspect of our social responsibility.
Suffice to say that I have lived up to my expectations of tangible outcomes in the form of publications, manuscripts submitted, work in progress. I have been prolific in peer reviewing for several journals. I have been offered and accepted invitations to co-publish and co-edit chapters and books on the topic of Leadership in Higher Education. I was fortunate enough to be given permission by my Dean to attend a Leadership Development Programme offered by the Centre for Creative Leadership. I have pushed myself way beyond my comfort zone in giving keynotes and presentations at conferences that are new to me. I was voted on to the position of Vice President of HETL, the International Higher Education Teaching and Learning Association (www.hetl.org), I have given seminars at several universities in the UK. I have networked extensively through email, social media, Skype and met with senior managers of universities.
I feel a sense of pride in my achievements. I have pushed myself forward professionally and personally and I have extended not just my individual professional impact but also as an ambassador, the reputation of my university.
I can lay out the tangible outcomes of my Research and Study Leave easily. What it is not possible to quantify are the intangible benefits of time out from routine, high pressure, constant small but time consuming demands on a daily basis.
My sabbatical has been one of the richest and most productive periods of my university career but a sabbatical is also a significant challenge.
My partner and I, born and bred Scottish decided to locate back to the homeland for the duration of my R&S Leave. Despite having been back and forth many times in the decade we have lived in NZ, it was a shock to see, feel and live the impact of the austerity measures brought in by the UK government in the wake of the Global Economic Crisis. We had to fit ourselves back into the new milieu of our old neighbourhood; live the challenge of an overcrowded area with tensions between the dominant population and new immigrants from Eastern European countries. It was thrilling to be in Scotland at the time of the Commonwealth Games, an event which without doubt captured the nation, and for which Glasgow, the host city, put on its Sunday best for the duration of the event and showed the very best it has to offer in hospitality, good humour and excellent sportsmanship.
Astonishing too to be in a small country seeking its independence from the rest of the UK; to see the wholehearted re-engagement in politics and the political process across all ages from sixteen upwards, with an 85% turnout for the referendum vote. No matter that the YES campaign lost, the referendum itself changed politics not just in Scotland but across the whole of the UK.
Being interested in leadership in general, who are our role models, what characteristics do good leaders display, it has been a fascinating experience to watch leadership in action in all different contexts. Re-familiarising ourselves with the current state of political play in Scotland and across the UK, comparing how the UK is faring in comparison to cities in Europe has felt like a lifetime’s learning. However well one keeps up with the news not only at local level but also international events, it is a shock to the system to come back to the Northern Hemisphere and be so exposed to the horrors of world events which are reported on much more extensively here than in New Zealand. Such an experience of coming ‘home’ has re-enforced my understandings of cultural differences and nuances, and the shifting cultural psyche.
While one is liberated from routine while on sabbatical, the potential of and for learning is incalculable – it is lifewide, it is looking outside of the relatively safe haven of academia and our professional or discipline based knowledge and learning. It is akin to seeing life in the raw! A sabbatical period is time to see the world through different eyes.Just occasionally in life, an opportunity comes along that could not have been predicted but which will have lasting insights, impact, challenges and learnings and I was lucky enough to be offered such an opportunity. I had not long commenced my research and Study Leave when I was asked if I would consider locating to Saudi Arabia for a period of time to work at Princess Nora University (PNU) in Riyadh.
Living and working in Saudi Arabia gave me incredible insights into the status and the challenges for universities in Saudi Arabia. I learned so much more about Islam and the Islamic culture. I also learned that much of what we take to be and assume to be repression of women, is seen very differently by highly educated Saudi Arabian women, but I also did learn much about the dis-satisfaction of women regarding the right to vote, the right to drive and freedom of movement.
I learned a great deal about intercultural competence, what it really means – and I question whether or not we do a good enough job of supporting students and indeed staff in developing this complex skill or attribute.
By reading the English versions of newspapers in Saudi Arabia, I learned more about relations between countries and cultures in the Middle East. I could feel strongly the rigid hierarchy of power relations. I could begin to understand why it is so difficult for smooth political relations between the West and the Middle East.
I also saw up close and personal, the impacts of the financial squeeze on universities and how the Middle East is a magnet for the Education Business, not necessarily always in the best interests of Saudi institutions, often simply financial transactions. I made many friends in Saudi Arabia and feel greatly privileged to have been asked to support Princess Nora University, Saudi Arabia’s first and the world’s largest women only university, in its endeavour to set up a Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching, and to support the University in strategies for building leadership capability and capacity.
I am now coming to the end of my sabbatical period and brace myself for re-entry into my university. Much will have changed, my roles and responsibilities are different, there will have been procedural changes, staff changes, budget cuts. But, I am also returning with a plan of action, much to offer my Dean and my Faculty.
Personally and professionally I am not in any doubt that I have grown. I hope that my learning, my publications, my tangible impact will be of value not only to the university, but also much more widely than that. In the less tangible and measurable aspects of sabbatical leave, I hope I will add value to the university, bring my enhanced sense of mindfulness and being mindful, and my global knowledge and understanding to bear on my work on leadership in higher education.
I have crossed boundaries again in my career having been a biochemist who changed career to academic developer and am now transitioning into leadership in higher education and what that means at institutional level. It is my challenge to blend together the discourses of leadership and higher education and contribute to a new narrative for a new era of higher education.
Personally, my batteries are re-charged. Family and friends have been visited. I have different perspectives on the world, more insight into the actual scale of the current challenges and what it will take to effect significant global change. I am enthused about returning to university life notwithstanding the challenges that might present.
I am grateful to the University of Auckland for the support provided for my Research and Study Leave. I wholeheartedly recommend sabbatical time and fully believe that the added value for the institution is significant with measurable and immeasurable components. From my viewpoint the lifelong and lifewide learning is a treat, a challenge and a privilege. The personal and professional development inherent in study leave is worth its weight in gold.
Professor Lorraine Stefani
Higher Education Strategic Engagement
Faculty of Education
University of Auckland, NZ