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Ready for the challenge-who would be a university leader?




Being a good leader is not easy - whether you are leading a team of academics or professional services staff or leading a whole university, there are always challenges. The current climate impacting on higher education in the UK is particularly turbulent and the sheer volume of change over the last few years is likely to challenge even the most experienced leaders. 


Nick Hillman, Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), whilst speaking to participants on the Entrepreneurial Leaders 2019 programme in Oxford, earlier this year, described the last four years as being the busiest ever for higher education policy changes. On a slide he listed many of the following which I have updated to include further changes since Jan 2019:


- Changes of government from coalition, majority and minority since 2015

- EU Referendum 2016 and current preparations for Brexit (deal or no deal);

- Three Prime Ministers;Five different Ministers and changes of government departmental responsibility for universities and science;

- Higher Education and Research Act 2017;

- End of HEFCE and rise of The Office for Students;

- End of OFFA and introduction of Director for Fair Access and Participation;

- Launch of UKRI;

- Changes to TEF and REF;

- Changes to student funding impacting on recruitment;

- Changes to research funding;

- Numerous Select Committee investigations;

- Strikes in universities- changes to pension arrangements;

- Migratory Advisory Committee Report 2018;

- Publication of the Augar Review 2019;Office for National Statistics  Review  2018 – accounting for student loans;

- Most intense scrutiny of universities and Vice Chancellors by government and the media damaging the image of UK universities,

- Some of the damage self-inflicted leading to questions about fit and proper governance. 


The list is a long one and most items have required changes to the way in which universities, in particular English universities, operate. Very few, if any, senior HE leaders could have predicted the vast range of changes occurring in such a short period and it is unlikely that even the very finest university strategic or corporate plans could have identified actions to mitigate the combined impact of all these changes. It is therefore no surprise that, along with the very real and live challenges associated with increased competition for the recruitment of UK school leavers, mature students, part-time students, EU and international students, we are witnessing many universities experiencing considerable budgetary pressures. A number of HEIs are currently implementing plans to significantly reduce expenditure and/or generate additional income. 

very few if any senior HE leaders could have predicted the vast range of changes occurring in such a short period and it is unlikely that even the finest strategic plans could have identified actions to mitigate the combined impact of all these changes.

These situations require effective leaders to navigate the turbulent seas, keeping a wary eye on the horizon and to steer their organisations, with their staff and students to (hopefully) calmer waters. It seems to me that the development of entrepreneurial leaders in higher education, with mindsets and behaviours such as creative thinking, the willingness and ability to innovate, lead change and take calculated risks, in order to lead skilfully at this time of unprecedented change, has never been more important. Embedding entrepreneurial leadership at all levels can enable a university to deal with challenges, seize opportunities, develop a competitive edge and achieve success. 

Embedding entrepreneurial leadership at all levels can enable a university to deal with challenges, seize opportunities, develop a competitive edge and achieve success. 

Entrepreneurial leaders embraces the need for passion, vision, focus and the ability to inspire others, along with the mindset and abilities to develop new ideas, explore new opportunities, face challenges and crises and influence others to foster innovation and change. They are able to solve problems creatively and use resources effectively and are, therefore, more likely to be better able to deal with challenges and crises thrown up in the current turbulent higher education environment. Entrepreneurial leaders think creatively, seek new opportunities proactively and are agile, brave and courageous enough to make swift decisions about risks in order to secure benefits and success for their teams and the wider university. 

If you feel that you could benefit from gaining a better understanding of some of the challenges facing universities at the present time and would like to develop either your own leadership skills or those of colleagues, please check out the link below for more information.





For specific queries, please get in contact with amy.maher@ncee.org.ukor at lesley.dobree@ncee.org.uk. Thanks for reading this blog. 

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