Positive universities: bring passion and optimism but don’t forget the purpose.

  • What would be happen if in addition to earnings, employability and academic attainment, we also measured the legacy of higher education in terms of a graduate’s wellbeing?
  • What would a flourishing university mean for staff and students?
  • What would a Positive University look and feel like?

From last Friday’s International Positive Education Network (IPEN) conference it is clear that leaders at the highest levels in higher education, public health and economic policy, joined by world-leading scholars and public policy shapers are both curious and serious about exploring these questions.

And so they should be.

There is huge potential for universities to embrace positive education. This challenges the current paradigm valuing academic attainment above all other goals.

Positive education takes a proactive approach that underpins and supplements a high quality academic education with the knowledge and life skills to enable students to flourish and promote the flourishing in others.

It enables students (and staff) to cope with life’s challenges and to use their strengths, passions and values to make the most of any opportunities that come along.

The research presented at IPEN highlighted clear benefits for institutions in being positively and deliberately deviant in how they approached, perceived and fostered the wellbeing of both students and staff.

As well as buffering against stress, anxiety and depression and promoting creative and positive mental states, embedding high-quality wellbeing education across students and staff is linked with increasing performance and creating a greater sense of community and belonging.

Whilst the possibilities and impact of positive education are enormously exciting, to be truly transformative, universities need to be careful and critical about how they pursue a wellbeing agenda.

A common call amongst speakers at IPEN was for schools and universities to think earnestly and holistically about purpose and quality before any new initiative, however well intentioned, was introduced.

It is critical that universities heed this advice and learn from the successes and near misses of schools and academies.

A common criticism of positive psychology and positive education is that it is nothing more than the Pollyanna pursuit of mandated optimism and happiness.

To avoid such lazy labels, it is vital that students and staff have the opportunity to develop a richer understanding of wellbeing. In addition to considering what feels pleasurable, fun and enjoyable, positive schools and universities should encourage opportunities to deliver and explore meaning and purpose through acts that extend beyond the individual self.

Truly positive institutions will collectively explore questions of value and nurture a shared vision which extends beyond individual achievement and considers greater global possibility and purpose.

This will need collaboration from all areas of a university including, but certainly not limited to, academics, students, student wellbeing services, estates and human resources.

There is an opportunity for a shared conversation and a joined-up approach  – something that is often strived for but seldom seen.

IPEN and other like-minded parties, who want to bring character and wellbeing to the lives of students and staff, now have a clear mandate to support universities who are curious about the benefits of a systemic and research informed approach to positive education.

In setting expectations of universities beyond individual achievement and scholarly success there is a role for students, staff, employers, parents and policy makers too.

Leading thinkers and scholars at the IPEN conference, Sir Anthony Seldon, Professor Lord Richard Layard and Professor Martin Seligman were all in fierce agreement that the invisible hand created through the measurement and interest in a learning institution’s contribution to wellbeing was critical in creating a tipping point for positive education in the UK and beyond.

I am presenting at the forthcoming Universities HR (UHR) 2017 conference which has the theme of “All things to all people: what are universities for?”

I can’t think of a better time to share, debate and discuss the concept of a Positive University and the value and benefit that a positive education approach can deliver for students, staff and us all.