Q&A: Matthew Syed

The future of higher education will be the focus of journalist, author and broadcaster Matthew Syed’s keynote and Q&A session at Ahead By Bett in March – we caught up with him for a taster

A highly acclaimed speaker in the field of mindset and high performance, Matthew Syed will be appearing at edtech extravaganza, the Bett Show, in March. In his address to the university sector, for the event’s Ahead By Bett strand, Matthew will talk about harnessing the power of cognitive diversity and high performance in order to succeed in a complex and volatile world.

How does Matthew think the higher education sector can take advantage of the disruption caused by Covid-19? What is ‘future-proofing’ and how can we prepare for the unknown? We sat down with him to find out.

The higher education sector has faced huge disruption since the start of 2020. How can we take advantage of the opportunities provided by disruption?

So, I think one way to harness the opportunities of disruption is firstly to have an organisational culture that embraces those opportunities rather than being threatened by them or pretending that they don’t exist. I think that is a big psychological question – some people are very defensive when things change and don’t enjoy it, or feel that it’s irritating. Others recognise this disruption as part and parcel of the drum beat of the modern world, and that the capacity of organisations – particularly ones with as important a mission as higher education – is about embracing change and having a positive can-do attitude. I think that’s very important.

The other thing is indeed being able to figure out how to harness disruption. I think you need to have diverse perspectives – if everyone comes from the same background or everyone thinks about education through a particular lens, that could be problematic. And that’s why having an array of different voices on your team and understanding how they might be leveraged is very, very important.

I think you need to have diverse perspectives – if everyone comes from the same background or everyone thinks about education through a particular lens, that could be problematic

How can the higher education sector adapt to overcome and future-proof their industry?

Well, if ‘future-proofing’ means taking advantage of opportunities and, to a certain extent, anticipating future disruption, I don’t think there’s any way of doing that perfectly. Given that the disruptions are sometimes difficult to anticipate, I think it’s about creating a set of institutional arrangements that will ensure that higher education has the right tools. Future-proofing is, I think, about being able to adapt rapidly in light of new events, new technologies and new information – for example, from students and lecturers – on what’s working and what isn’t. After we’ve absorbed these learnings and integrated them into our future provision, it’s important to ensure we’re testing out different ways of doing things so they’re cost-effective. I think it’s a whole range of adaptive mechanisms rather than ploughing ahead with a rigid plan. I don’t think you can absolutely future-proof unless you’re just being very adaptive to new information.

Do you think there’s a term that we should be using instead of ‘future-proofing’ that’s more appropriate to describe optimised approaches to reframing strategy and culture going forward?

With the term ‘future-proofing’, you could imagine somebody saying, for example, as a large professional services organisation, that improved future-proofing requires them to have a large HQ and 50% of people pledged to a specific task – that feels more like a set of constraints on adaptation. I think being flexible is really important when you are considering taking some strategic risks, but again, those are managed much better with a growth mindset and diverse teams.

I think it’s very important for us to help students create a skill set which makes them capable of not just answering questions, but of asking interesting questions and testing their own hypotheses

What essential skills do we need to cultivate in students, staff, and senior leadership teams within the higher education sector?

Of course, we need good staff in order to teach the right skills, but for what it’s worth, I think many university academics are very good at having deep knowledge of their own area of expertise, but might have less knowledge about underlying trends of social science or topics outside of their specialty. The evidence suggests that the best research is done by interdisciplinary teams, because many of the problems we face are broader than any given subject silo. Therefore, staff who are very good at looking out into the wider constellation of ideas and are good at cultivating collaboration know how to build that infrastructure around making change happen.

I think students need that influence too – students need to be able to work effectively in teams, they need to be able to collaborate, and they need those soft skills as well as digital capabilities. I think it’s very important for us to help students create a skill set which makes them capable of not just answering questions, but of asking interesting questions and testing their own hypotheses. I think those skills are essential going forward. There’s so much research showing how students who work in teams rather than just listening passively to top down lectures subsequently have a whole set of attributes that are beneficial in terms of their future careers outside academia.

How can the ideas, attitudes and concepts you work with be applied to higher education?

There are two ideas here which are relevant, the first being something I call ‘black box thinking’. Black box thinking is really all about learning from mistakes. Much like the black box in an aircraft, it’s about analysing processes and extracting lessons when something has gone wrong. Of course, it’s easier said than done.

The concept behind Rebel Ideas, my newer book, is all about creating collective intelligence in human groups, which comes in my submission in that book through the optimisation of cognitive diversity. I think both of those ideas are highly relevant to higher education, probably more there than almost anywhere else, because it’s a domain that is focused on uniquely human activity, which is the capacity to transmit knowledge and social tools for young people. This is something that humans do which virtually no other species do well, but there is probably a lot of quite deeply entrenched thinking behind the processes we use to do this which is slowly being picked apart by new technology and new ideas.

I think that the sector is in the midst of one of its greatest disruptions right now, so I think those institutions that get it right are probably going to soar ahead. The returns to education are probably higher now than ever before, and interestingly, the returns to elite universities within the sector are higher than ever before. Globalisation is creating a real ‘winner takes all’ effect, so it’s a great moment to be able to think originally about this.

I think that the sector is in the midst of one of its greatest disruptions right now, so I think those institutions that get it right are probably going to soar ahead

What’s the most exciting thing about higher education right now?

I think all of it is really exciting. I think that there is a lot of discussion going on in this space about how to harness technology properly, how to personalise education, and understanding more about how individuals learn. There’s a huge conversation going on around how we can equip young people with a whole array of technical and non-technical skills, and how this fits into the future of work and how to improve productivity. I think higher education is a node at the centre of almost everything, even great power rivalries. There are lots of questions facing the sector at the moment, and the more we discuss the potential way forward, the more I feel that higher education is probably one of the most important areas in in the modern world.

What key takeaways can visitors expect to get from your keynote address at Ahead by Bett?

I’m looking forward to getting into the detail during the Q&A with the audience, but in my presentation I’ll be providing an overview of what the highest-performing organisations are doing at the moment to ensure that they are taking advantage of the new opportunities presented by a post-pandemic world. I think a broad analysis of how to make the best of a world that changes fast and to get the best from your whole team are essential topics that the higher education sector will be interested to hear about. It’s all about creating a really vibrant, dynamic culture at work which makes your institution as a whole stronger when you’re tackling the unknown and unexpected.

One last question: what are you looking forward to at Ahead by Bett?

I always enjoy listening, so I’m hoping to be able to attend as much of the show as possible, and I’m keen to come along to listen to other people, which is always the best way to learn. Of course, I’m looking forward to the Q&A after my session, and seeing how people respond to what I have to say, but I’m looking forward to listening to other speakers at the event and talking to people who are experts in areas I’m new to.


Matthew Syed will be giving a keynote address at Ahead By Bett, part of the Bett Show, at ExCeL London from 23-25 March 2022.

Leave a Reply

Send an Invite...

Would you like to share this event with your friends and colleagues?