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Advance HE begins sector consultation to develop a global leadership survey and framework

25 Aug 2021 | Doug Parkin, Professor Richard Watermeyer & Alison Johns 'So, what works for leadership in higher education?' – individual expressions of interest invited to contribute to the project

If you would like to participate in this project, please see below for details of how to submit an individual expression of interest.

As the first step in the development of a global survey for leadership in higher education and related organisations (e.g. research institutes), Advance HE has commissioned a scoping study that will be undertaken by a research team led by the University of Bristol and involving colleagues from the University of the West of England and Swansea University. This research study consisting of a literature review and a series of ten roundtable discussions with key higher education (HE) stakeholder groups will inform the survey design. In parallel with both activities, the scoping study and the survey, a global leadership framework for enhancement and recognition will be developed.

This article introduces the project overall and provides details of how you can engage with the consultation process. Beginning with an introduction from the project leader, Doug Parkin, there is then an overview of the research process from Professor Richard Watermeyer, Co-Director of the Centre for Higher Education Transformations at the University of Bristol, before a final strategic endorsement of the project from Advance HE Chief Executive, Alison Johns.

So, what works for leadership in higher education?

Doug Parkin, Principal Adviser for Leadership and Management, Advance HE. Project lead.

Whether or not we were aware of it before, the COVID-19 pandemic has firmly underlined the importance of leadership for team and organisational success across all sectors. The international consulting firm, McKinsey & Company, described the pandemic as “the toughest leadership test” (May 2020), and the Chartered Management Institute based in the UK called it “the ultimate test of management and leadership”. Capturing the extreme sense of challenge expressed by higher education leaders in conversations during the Creating Socially Distanced Campuses and Education (SDCE) project led by Advance HE in 2020, the Final Capstone Report asserted that “every aspect of our normal continuity has been torn apart by the fault line of COVID-19” (July 2020). The headline for the chapter on Higher Education Leadership in a Pandemic Age was “extraordinary times require outstanding leadership”.

But the story doesn’t end with these headlines. As we look back we see a remarkable journey of leadership as higher education institutions (HEIs) moved from crisis to connected campus. A multiplicity of skills and qualities were involved, and leadership had to manifest itself in different ways and through different actors as the pandemic landscape evolved. From courageous qualities around the moment of crisis, through compassionate qualities as people responded, to collaborative qualities to reshape the delivery of core activities. The SDCE project mentioned above identified five faces of leadership all of which were needed through the pandemic experience:

  • Crisis leadership,
  • Courageous leadership,
  • Compassionate leadership,
  • Collaborative leadership,
  • Creative leadership.

This extraordinary experience has brought into sharp focus the question 'what works for leadership in higher education?'. Without reasonable clarity on this it is hard to invest in leaders, support leadership development and recognise good practice in a consistent and reliable way. Across all sectors leadership “remains the No. 1 talent issue facing organizations around the world” and “a shortage of leaders is one of the biggest impediments to growth” (Global Human Capital Trends 2014, Deloitte Consulting). Furthermore, there are arguments for saying that leadership in higher education and research institutes requires a particularly nuanced set of attributes and approaches. These are, after all, critically refined environments where success is multi-dimensional and there is a complex web of values at work around the social identities of teams, departments, and disciplines.

In a similar way to learning and teaching, the complexity of leadership in higher education cannot be captured as a fixed set of raw competencies. There is much to do with the culture of the organisation, the context of the team, the character of the individual and the challenge of the task, to list just four significant variables, that influence how leadership may operate. Again, in a similar way to teaching, there are also contrasting views on how leadership is defined and interpreted as a practice. Linked to this, universities, colleges, and research institutes as social institutions generate constructs that shape expectations as regards both leaders and leadership. This all points towards a framework that is illustrative rather than definitive, interpretable to context, and developmental.

The broad objectives of the Advance HE Leadership Survey will be to:

  • Start to generate a unique evidence base for leadership in HE,
  • Reveal how staff in HE conceive of leadership,
  • Help to articulate the values, behaviours and constructs that contribute to effective leadership (including through different roles and levels),
  • Highlight contextual variations across the sector and around the world,
  • Contrast the views of those leading and those being led,
  • Explore the impact of leadership development,
  • Promote the importance of the reflective leadership practitioner,
  • Generate clear, reliable, and objective data that can inform the development and operation of a leadership framework,
  • Assist organisations in designing, developing, and nurturing their leadership capacity.

To achieve these goals, we need you! As Professor Watermeyer sets out below, we need a rich mix of diverse colleagues to contribute to a series of roundtable discussions. Representing different communities within higher education, different leadership levels and various relevant stakeholder groups, the roundtables will be a key source of information and intelligence for the scoping study.

Professor Richard Watermeyer, Co-Director of the Centre for Higher Education Transformations at the University of Bristol – Project manager of the research group.

The pandemic has placed – and continues to place – a huge strain on the international higher education community, most obviously in terms of institutional operations and finance yet also as relates to individuals’ health and wellbeing.

Staff have been forced to confront the various challenges and restrictions of remote working. They have contended with physical separation from their institutions, their colleagues and students, and concurrently the collapsing of the borderlines between home and work. A professional and personal toll has been extensive and also, as is often the case, unequally shared. Yet, in many, many instances, crisis conditions have been met with grit and vigour – a can-do approach, individual enterprise and collective endeavour.  There is good evidence of university communities pulling together in weathering the COVID-19 storm and of efforts to become more compassionate, humane and caring organisations. There are also, however, regrettably if inevitably, a parallel abundance of stories of missteps in mediating the crisis, and complaints of hopeless ‘heroic’ leadership; narratives which in a UK context especially have been fuelled by a recent history of academic discontent and spates of prolonged industrial action.

The pandemic has thus, further sharpened a focus on leadership in higher education, and made questions pertaining to its practice and experience never more so salient, not least where a pathway to a post-pandemic future – that betters a pre-pandemic past – is coveted. It has revealed, perhaps as never before, the full spectrum of those who enact leadership and those to whom leadership is enacted upon. It has shown that leadership is far broader and far more nuanced than is habitually conceived and that it is the privilege not only of appointed leaders and management hierarchies, but the democratic right and responsibility of all members of an unmistakably heterogenous congregation.

In undertaking this study, therefore, we assume as a research team a significant duty of care in ensuring that all members of our higher education community are given equal license to lead discussion in terms of what is meant, practised and received as leadership. Our methodology which consists, beyond a literature review, of round table events with discussants from across the sector and professional hierarchies is thus intended to provide a holistic and inclusive forum for critical deliberation. This conversation on higher education leadership will thus emphatically, be led by you, the fullest membership of the higher education community, with participants from across all parts of the sector, at various career stages; working in diverse institutional, divisional and disciplinary contexts; with various social profiles; and hopefully with knowledge and experience of leadership that transcends national jurisdictions.

Further details pertaining to each of the round tables are available as an information sheet. We encourage as many as possible to register their interest in participating in these sessions, which will be led by a research team of social scientists, well-seasoned in the facilitation and evaluation of deliberative dialogue and consultation. We look forward to joining you in this never more so important conversation.   

Taking place online and facilitated by the research team, the roundtables will be two-hours in duration, including a ten-minute break at the mid-point. An information sheet is available to download with further details.

The ten roundtables taking place between October and December 2021 are as follows:


For detail of dates and times, to download an information sheet, and to register an expression of interest is all available here.

Expressions of interest are invited from individuals. Follow the link above to express your interest in being a roundtable participant. As places are limited, there will then be a selection process based on a range of criteria including social, disciplinary, professional, institutional, and international diversity. We will respond to all expressions of interest received. Please hold the date and time for your roundtable of interest in your diary until you hear from us.

The closing date for expressions of interest is two-weeks before the date of each roundtable.

Alison Johns, Chief Executive Officer, Advance HE.

We can’t leave leadership development to chance. It’s too important.

In all of the challenges faced by universities, colleges and research institutes, in all of the missions for growth and visions for change, time and time again the conversation comes back to leadership. From teaching and research through to flourishing estates, community engagement, inclusion and sustainability, each area of focus thrives on good leadership. Higher education also, rather uniquely, has a lot of colleagues facing the challenge of leading with influence rather than authority, most notably in teaching leadership roles.

It is no exaggeration to say that the future success of higher education in every country around the world will depend on leadership. Increasingly our international work is focussing on leadership development, especially to support HE and system reform. Not just at the top, but across all levels and functions. This has been powerfully illustrated by the role of leadership in the sector’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, as described by Doug Parkin above. We must learn from this and also it is very timely, when reflecting on that learning to define the leadership needed for the HE of the future.

To put us as a sector in the best position to develop, support and recognise colleagues in leadership roles, to plan leadership structures and capacity, and to grow the talent for tomorrow, we need to know far more about ‘what works for leadership in higher education?’ This needs to come from the sector and be for the sector. Whilst there are some good examples of research into higher education leadership, and some inspired writing, a lot of the ideas used in leadership development are anecdotal, from other sectors, or draw on models and insights from the broader leadership literature. This is not necessarily wrong, but we need to have a stronger understanding of how those models and approaches fit the context of higher education, and the needs of leaders and the colleagues they support. In exploring this a balance needs to be struck, too, between the leader as an individual and leadership as a social process.

The vision for this project, which is a key part of Advance HE’s overall strategy, is to develop a global framework for leadership in higher education and related organisations. To shape and inform this we are also going to launch a large-scale annual leadership survey as described above. The scoping study being undertaken by Professor Richard Watermeyer and colleagues is the first step in designing the survey. This whole process should be one of the largest collective conversations about leadership in higher education ever undertaken.

Since its launch in 2006 the Professional Standards Framework (PSF) for teaching and supporting learning in higher education has been hugely successful as a catalyst for change and enhancement. Through recognition, accreditation, the framing of development programmes and the sharing of good practice it has been influential around the world as an individual and organisational tool for progressing the quality of teaching and student support. Without mimicking this approach, the opportunity exists to develop a parallel framework for leaders and leadership. This is an opportunity which we all can embrace, hence our invitation to you to be part of this work.

We feel it is important for voices to be heard to stimulate debate and share good practice. Blogs on our website are the views of the author and don’t necessarily represent those of Advance HE.

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