Tales from the Lockdown #8: a conversation with Yusra Mouzughi, Muscat University
22 May 2020
In this series of conversations, our guests talk to Senior Consultant Claudia Monteiro about what they're learning during the pandemic and what future they're imagining.
Yusra Mouzughi, Vice-Chancellor at Muscat University
What aren’t we talking enough about during this crisis?
I feel there is a gap between the push to deliver education online and no time to figure out the student experience. For many of our students being online comes naturally but for a lot of our academic and professional staff that isn’t the case -- students are citizens of the digital world but for some academics, they are migrating into this world.
What does this mean for our staff, especially when they can’t go into the office? Oman has been under a very strict form of lockdown since March 15; we’re only allowed out for absolute necessity. Many of our colleagues live with extended family here in Muscat, there is no privacy in the home space to do a day’s work. On top of that women are traditionally looking after their children, supporting homeschooling and caring for parents or in-laws. There is a blurring of roles, with offices closed and women taking on the lion’s share of the care work.
I sense we’re expecting too much of people right now but if we come out of this with a good discussion about the pressures on home and work life then that would be an excellent first step into the future.
We have one other group of lecturers who live in Oman seasonally or who would at least travel back home regularly. Some of them haven’t seen their children since December 2019. They’re living on their own, with no company or support network, they don’t know the language and there’s no sign of travel bans being lifted. The mental wellbeing of those colleagues is something that has been on our minds and we have tried to find ways to support them.
Name one change that you or your organisation has been forced to take that you’d like to carry into the future?
Like everyone else we had to move online quickly but the context has changed for us. Up until the pandemic the Ministry of Higher Education in Oman had been very skeptical about digital education whereas now, and at least for the time being, we all have their blessing.
That means we can look at what we do online and be braver about dipping our toes in that arena. This week we’ve been doing workshops to revisit our strategic plan of 2018-2023 and while a lot of it still stands, we must consider different ways of doing what we planned. It might shift a few gears for us, but we’re staying true to our vision.
We’re a startup university, established in 2016 with a team of 62 staff and around 500 students. Our numbers are small and that makes our campus and that physical presence so important but we’re going to be asking questions around flexibility. Does everyone need to be on campus all the time? Do we hot desk from now on?
Tell us a tale of one of your local heroes, a person or a group within your university or school community who have pulled out all the stops at this time of crisis.
I have been so proud of what our people have achieved, they’ve really gone the extra mile, despite pressures at home. There’s been great solidarity between colleagues and some of our more technically savvy departments have put in the time to help others with whatever they needed. I’m still concerned about the extra hours everyone is putting into their work, but it’s been heartwarming to see how passionate people are about their jobs.
We’ve also created a Coffee and Catch up where there is one very healthy rule which is, we can’t talk about work. It’s been a real leveller.
What’s surprised you the most once normality disappeared and your organisation had to adapt to a different reality?
I’m surprised at how online forums have both focused and democratised conversations. Our university-wide forum has worked even better than the gathering we used to hold; people are asking questions and promoting debate, there are less of those ‘passing comment’ moments.
We held forums with students too and they seem more comfortable with typing questions into a chat box than raising their hands in a classroom. That’s compounded in the cultural context of Oman where the young show such respect to their elders. It means that someone who is reluctant to voice an opinion of their own to the teacher might feel more at ease to do so in a digital environment.
As a team leader, how has your focus changed? What are you more mindful of these days?
It’s been a challenge to focus on the day job as the first four to six weeks were all about crisis management. Now we’re looking ahead at what happens when we’re back in campus and I’m constantly changing gears – from assessing the impact of oil prices, to participating in forums with higher education leaders, to thinking about the detail of our operations. Our building is on seven floors so how do we use lifts? How are we changing the timetable to accommodate for much slower movement of people in the building?
What partnerships and collaborations really came into play when it came down to it?
Our partnerships with Aston and Cranfield in the United Kingdom helped us work our way through this difficult period. To get there we set up a robust IT infrastructure four or five years ago, a significant investment that turned out to be fundamental for the present time. There’s great value in sharing best practice and for us it meant we could adapt guidelines and policies much quicker than we’d be able to generate within our smaller structure.
There were challenges, of course – when colleagues went into furlough in the UK we had to work closely with UK based colleagues to ensure students who worked with faculty in those universities continued to be supported.
Our partnerships with industry have gained a renewed importance. We’re a startup university, very removed from the ivory tower mentality, and we’ve geared up our research to support the national effort to deal with the pandemic. Some of our faculty have focused on supply chains and logistics, key to the economy of Oman.
And the third area is related to the conversations I’m having with other higher education institutions here in Oman. The pandemic has brought us closer together and it’s fantastic to have a voice at that table. We’re constantly collaborating through wahtsapp and on the phone, and organising our priorities for the Ministry of Higher Education.
What would you like to hear from other deans of business schools?
I’d like to get more of a feel around the financial modelling of universities, how they’re gonna make up for a drop in international intake [Muscat University has primarily domestic students] and I’d love to learn about real collaborations outside the box. If we’re running finance and accounting programmes and half of that is delivered online then surely we can be sharing some delivery across universities.
Photo: Suzy Hazelwood from Pexels
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