UK universities are putting more resources than ever into large-scale organisational change and capital programmes to keep pace with the growing competitiveness of the national and international market. Across the sector, overall annual surpluses are under pressure and, as the policy environment has shifted over the last 20 years or so, higher education institutions (HEIs) have been forced to increase efficiencies in a fluctuating funding environment and to try to respond to change with greater speed and agility. The Higher Education Council for England (Hefce) reported in November 2016 that the sector is anticipated to invest about £17.8bn in infrastructure programmes over the next four years; an average annual investment of £4.5bn and a 51% increase on the previous four-year average. With the potential of declining international and domestic student numbers, the success of such large-scale organisational change and capital programmes is therefore paramount to the whole sector (Leadership Foundation for Higher Education / Advance HE, 2017). In the light of these figures, it is worthwhile taking stock and inquiring into the kinds of pressures that senior managers are exposed to, how they understand them and what they find themselves doing with others as they participate in bringing about change.
In this paper we reflect on change initiatives within six HEIs across the UK and the degree to which they might be considered ‘transformational’. This research has been undertaken by members of the Managing Complex Change (MCC) research group at the Hertfordshire Business School. MCC is a multidisciplinary research group which takes a practical, theoretical and critical interest in the complexities of change and the role of leaders in public and private sector organisations. The research undertaken by the group draws on the pragmatic tradition of Dewey, Pierce and Mead, as well as insights from social sciences, giving primacy to experience and emphasising the importance of human interactions. We also draw analogies with the complexity sciences, reflecting on how organisations and change emerge in the interactions of interdependent players. Our approach is shaped by our understanding of the complex interplay of stability and change, uncertainty and predictability, the local and global in organisational life.