Meet the Patrons Q&A with United World College of South-East Asia President Carma Elliott

Reading time: approx 9 minutes

As part of The Learnovate Centre’s Meet the Patrons series, we speak to Carma Elliot, the first ever College President of United World College South-East Asia (UWCSEA), the world’s largest international school. 

UWCSEA is based in Singapore with nearly 6,000 students split between two campuses. Founded in 1972, the college is this year celebrating its 50th year building connections between children from all cultures and backgrounds through its strong focus on peace and sustainability. UWCSEA was the second school to be established under the UWC umbrella which has since expanded to include 18 schools around the world.

The college’s service to the expatriate population in Singapore has been essential to the growth of the country’s economy, helping to transform Singapore from an agrarian economy to a global financial centre in just half a century. 

College President Carma Elliot began her career as a diplomat with the UK Foreign Office in 1987. Serving in various parts of Europe, Saudi Arabia and China, she remained at her post for 23 years before departing to become executive director of the Half the Sky Foundation, a non-governmental organisation that provides training to staff at orphanages in China to aid children’s early years development and cognitive function. 

She served as Minister for Culture and Education in the British Embassy in Beijing and spent six years as China Director for the British Council in the Chinese Capital, a role focused on enriching international relations through “people-to-people” interactions with a particular emphasis on boosting the number of Chinese students studying at universities in the UK and encouraging British students to study in China.  

She became the first president of President of the College in 2019 and is responsible for managing the school’s sizeable student body and 500-strong teaching staff.  

What are the biggest lessons you learned in your career?

Take the time to listen to people. Hear what is said and take the time to reflect on it. Listening and learning is a very important skill. 

As an employer and leader, you should always recruit people who have expertise you don’t have or a skill level that’s higher than yours. You want them to become an asset to you and your company and that will also mean that they’re going to challenge you. As a senior leader, you have to move towards a more broad-based leadership. 

Recruit the best person for the job, not the best person you can afford. And if you can’t afford them, make sure you can the next time around. 

What was the best advice you ever received?

If you’re invited to an event, don’t go without a speech in your back pocket. The number of times you turn up somewhere as an attendee only to find you’re on the programme… Or a speaker doesn’t turn up and they turn to you and say, ‘Will you just say a few words?’ So that advice has been very helpful. 

How would you define your work style and how has this changed over your career?

Your style depends on the different contexts in which you’re working. I’ve worked in public service, a not-for-profit organisation and now in a major education institute. 

At UWCSEA we have a workforce of up to 50 nationalities, so you need to be culturally competent. You might also need to able to flex your leadership to respond to cultural norms in different countries. For instance, in China there are issues around challenging leaders. It’s a more diffident approach. It’s up to individuals to see whether perceptions of certain norms are true in practice and understand what one can do to engage people across different cultural backgrounds. 

When I worked in the Foreign Office there were few women in senior positions. There had never been a female ambassador to France or Beijing, for instance. But then the permanent under-secretary to the senior civil servant created a wall of mirrors with role names underneath them, so that women and ethnic minorities could look into those mirrors and see themselves in that role. 

In international education, you hope to see as much diversity amongst the teachers as the student body. That is something that I like to think I bring to my role here: increased diversity in leadership across all areas.  

What have you learned about managing teams and individuals?

Know your team. Take time to understand their backgrounds and professional experience and what their ambitions are. Within any organisation career pathways should be created for colleagues, particularly in mission-driven organisations like UWCSEA. If people are motivated by the mission here, they would like to think they can develop their career within the school, so we create succession plans around their aspiration for leadership positions. 

In international education those positions have often been held by people from backgrounds that are not as representative of the student body as you would like. The debate in a lot of sectors is that leadership is often male and white. I remain open to the idea that my successor may already be in the organisation and it’s my job to make them identify with a leadership position as much as their current role. 

What are your favourite tools and resources in work?

I’ve encouraged colleagues to be professionally curious, to have networks they can plug into – like Learnovate. The Economist magazine has a corporate network that allows colleagues to sign up for hours of talks and webinars about a range of topics that aren’t directly related to their job. That has tended to be the kind of approach I’ve taken. If I have access to a particular network, I extend that access to colleagues so they can develop their own intellectual and professional curiosity.

In what sectors and markets do you see untapped opportunities?

I see opportunities for publishers and around curriculum management, particularly in the digital space. In an international context, kids have shifted to learning online for the past two years and the opportunities arising from that can be exploited with the type of funding that is provided by governments and the European Union.

Why is R&D important in the learning technology industry?

There is a growing awareness of exponential tech like artificial intelligence. IT is not just a gadget. It’s important to draw on the research community and really examine not just the benefits but also the mental health impacts of the isolation that’s brought about by online learning. What’s the cognitive impact of online learning versus in-person learning? We’ve seen interesting research around things like social media and its effects on attention span and so on, but it’s really important to look at the cognitive impairment – if that’s what is happening – following the sustained use of technology in this way. That’s especially true when looking at older years in education and how it might affect the move to higher education. It might be that we need to create a smoother glide path from higher education to employment. There’s so much digital disruption in the workplace, maybe that adaptation piece needs to start earlier within the learning environment.

From your experience, what are the current trends in learning?

There is a greater focus now on different methods of assessment. In a number of countries over the last two years young people have not been able to sit those high-stakes exams as they would have done in the past. There’s a real focus now on providing a more nurturing environment in assessment. That’s especially true within the International Baccalaureate. It has returned to traditional exams but it’s also very keen to look at innovation in that area as well.

How should we prepare for the future of work? 

I’m interested in working with employers to create modules and activities in schools. The idea is to bring employers into the thinking of what schools need to develop from junior and senior high school levels, identify essential skills for jobs or higher learning environments that students are heading for. 

Another big trend is the ‘gamification’ of education which incorporates game-based elements, like points scoring and competition, to drive engagement from students.

It’s important to have a conversation about how those programmes might be developed for young people together with employers. That might include work placements with employers, which would help build understanding about what the work environment is like. It could involve things like financial literacy in terms of things like blockchain. Young people who are interested in science might work with tech companies who are working in AI. The skills we’ll need in the future might not be so evident now, but it will be something to which they will need to adapt at some point in the future. 

What book would you recommend on learning, technology or understanding people?

Windswept & Interesting by Billy Connolly. 

It’s the comedian Billy Connolly’s autobiography. I think it’s important for young people and those working in education to look at the life story of someone who’s well-known globally as a comic but began life in a very disadvantaged and marginalised community and how he used education to build his career. I have found that helpful and I’ve recommended it to a lot of our scholarships students as well. Life lessons from celebrities who have integrity are very important to young people. I don’t necessarily mean ‘influencers’ who are focused on product placement but more people who have had a life journey that has led to success – but in a way that has real integrity. I’d highly recommend it. It has you laughing out loud as well. 

Why is membership of Learnovate important to your company?

It is the opportunity to work with a network that has its base within a respected learning community. Of particular importance is that focus on research into education and different aspects of learning innovation, the link into technology and translational research, taking shared research around learning platforms and models and taking it through to fruition in terms of innovation and employment. 

We obviously benefit from being part of that eco-system and I hope, given our connections in Singapore and across the UWC movement, we can also be helpful at bringing the view of what’s happening in international education. The cross-fertilisation of thinking is a key reason why we feel that being a Patron of Learnovate is of mutual benefit. 

What do you think Learnovate does well?

Learnovate is particularly good at linking opportunities for innovation, commercialisation, and job creation. The Patrons community is a very broad range of partnerships and stakeholders. They are coming at some of the same questions from different perspectives. There’s a good team supporting that approach and they support the individual members very well. Learnovate makes sure that all parties are offering something to the discussion while also being able to draw on it to create new opportunities. 

Where I see the value is to draw in other schools and colleges throughout our world so that we can bring in a number of global perspectives. I hope that some of the work that we might develop in the community, or with joint research in mind, could also be informed by our students and alumni who themselves are very global. We bring a very international view which we hope to feed back into the system.

What have you/your organisation learned from your experience of Covid-19?

Having clear principals guiding our crisis response was really helpful. We all do crisis and business continuity planning which we hope to never have to use but if those plans are developed the right way, it creates continuity. In our context, that was about continuity in education for our students. Our parents are our customers and we’ve a contractual commitment to them. That continuity of business is important as it’s the continuity of learning as well. 

The second thing we’ve learned is that crisis planning, in particular the acceleration of teaching technology, needed to be coupled with more agility around our systems and governance. Agility around structures and systems is vital so you can make real-time decisions. 

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