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Some personal views of leadership in higher education...

Updated: Aug 12, 2019


I have been asked often about my own thoughts on leadership in UK universities. My immediate response is that being a good and effective leader is not easy! Whether you are the Vice Chancellor, DVC, a Dean or Director of a Professional Service or leading somewhere in the middle of the university, there are always challenges. However there are also many rewards in terms of achieving goals, working with staff and students and enabling success. I also believe that the ongoing development of personal leadership skills is essential in order to lead effectively during a time of unprecedented change in the HE sector. The skills required now are different and more diverse to those required a couple of decades ago.


I was fortunate enough to be Deputy Vice Chancellor at a UK university from 2004-2017 and looking back over that 13 year period the HE sector changed significantly. Such changes have included:


- The move from a single UK university sector to a multifaceted 4 nation university system with differing funding and governance mechanisms. 

- The increased diversity of university missions, as the post-92 modern universities have matured, towards greater differentiation, distinctiveness and global outlook.

- Growth of the private sector with increasing numbers of new providers (though some have been less successful than others) leading to increased competition.

- Barriers to the recruitment of international students. 

- Changes to the funding regime making income flow less predictable and increasingly uncertain and hence the need to explore alternative income generating opportunities. 

- The positive images of universities being eroded by governments, the press and tax payers- more questioning and scrutiny and considerable self -inflicted damage.

- Increasing importance of the consumer/client voice- students at the heart of the HE system.

- Less autonomy and greater emphasis on outcomes and impact eg TEF and REF and return on investment for student fee payers. 


I was interested to read the most recent edition of “Strategic Leadership of Change in Higher Education” in which the editor Stephanie Marshall (2019) makes reference to the external environment changing so rapidly that leaders need to constantly reappraise their priorities and how they lead. She identifies 5 areas for particular attention:

- horizon scanning to identify challenges and opportunities locally, nationally and globally;

- making use of data and data analytics to make informed decisions,

- drive change and innovation; agility and creativity in order to adapt and respond to change;

- diversity and inclusivity to ensure that as wide a range of highly talented individuals are appointed and retained;  

- adopting an E4 leadership style that is engaging, energised, empowering and engaged (Marshall 2019)


The current climate requires a different approach to leadership of universities, grounded in experience rather than theory with much greater emphasis placed on values and mission than on strategy and long term planning. These ideas sit well with the ideas behind entrepreneurial leadership where leaders draw on inner strengths and experience rather than theoretical constructs. The development of entrepreneurial leaders in higher education with mindsets and behaviours such as creative thinking, the willingness and ability to innovate, lead change, make data-based decisions, and take calculated risks in order to lead skilfully at a time of unprecedented change in the sector has never been more important.

The current climate requires a different approach to leadership of universities, grounded in experience rather than theory with much greater emphasis placed on values and mission than strategy and long term planning. These ideas sit well with the ideas behind entrepreneurial leadership where leaders draw on inner strengths and experience rather than theoretical constructs. 

I was fortunate to participate in the NCEE Entrepreneurial Leaders programme in 2011 (the second cohort) and found it to be one of the most inspiring and meaningful programmes I have ever undertaken. At that stage I was already a fairly experienced DVC with lead responsibility for enhancing all of the university’s academic activities. Initially I thought entrepreneurial leadership was primarily for those leading research and innovation or income generating activities but I quickly realised that entrepreneurial leadership is relevant and appropriate for all HE leaders, whether you are leading a whole university or leading an academic or professional service area. I was inspired through listening to a range of top  thought-leaders and policy makers and engaging with other participants and learning about their universities. I am part of a supportive NCEE alumni network of around 200 leaders who have participated in the programme over the last decade, many of whom are in the most senior roles in universities both in the UK and overseas. The programme certainly impacted positively on my career and leadership development.

Entrepreneurial leadership is relevant and appropriate for all HE leaders

If you are interested in learning more and participating in the programme in January 2020 you will find additional information at the link below.

http://ncee.org.uk/programmes/leadership


Building on the success of Entrepreneurial Leaders and recognising the importance of entrepreneurial leadership at all levels in a university, we have developed Entrepreneurial Heads. This is a shorter programme focussed on entrepreneurial leadership and leading change and innovation. It is designed for those leading teams of academics or professional service staff within Schools/ Faculties and Services. It is also appropriate for those who do not have line-management responsibility but lead change and innovation. If you would like more information on this programme see the link below. The next 3 day, programme starts in October 2019

http://ncee.org.uk/programmes/entrepreneurial-heads


Alternatively for further information or advice please contact amy.maher@ncee.org.uk or lesley.dobree@ncee.org.uk


Thank you for reading this article!

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