The Advance HE Leadership Survey project for higher education was established to pose the question ‘What works for higher education leadership?’ with long-term objectives of generating a unique evidence base for leadership in HE and supporting organisations in designing, developing, and nurturing their leadership capacity.
To inform and shape the survey itself, Advance HE commissioned a comprehensive, year-long, scoping study, undertaken by an independent research team, with strong expertise in the field of higher education leadership at the Universities of Bristol and the University of the West of England. A separate literature review was also commissioned; as was a robust approach to global engagement via a series of roundtables. Our aim was to provide a strong, contemporary and conceptual basis for the survey, and to inform detailed survey design.
The survey report is based on responses from more than 530 leaders HE leaders from around the world at all levels of leadership experience. They were asked to respond through the perspective of their own leadership (‘Leading’) and their experience of leadership in their organisation (‘Being led’) – a deliberate comparison between how respondees see things as leaders and their experience as followers.
Among the key findings were:
- Views about key priorities: Selected from a pre-coded list, ‘teaching and learning’, and ‘developing a positive and enabling culture’, were identified as consistent priorities across perspectives of ‘Leading’ (42% and 40%) and ‘Being led’ (27% and 30%), ranked 1 and 2 for both perspectives, albeit in differing order. ‘Research activity’ was ranked much lower.
- Leadership attributes: Leaders rated the level of their own skill and experience in all attributes to be much higher than the extent to which they felt leaders in general were supported and empowered to demonstrate those same attributes. For example, leaders rated themselves highly on including colleagues in decision-making (88%), but this is one of the lowest rated attributes from an institutional perspective, with less than 1 in 4 (39%) feeling all leaders are empowered to include colleagues in decision making
- Leadership in context: Leaders rate their own understanding in many areas much higher than the understanding of leaders more generally in their organisation: Communications (Leading 91%, Being led 46%); Enabling change (87% and 40%); Team development (83% and 37%)
- Time to reflect: By far the majority of perspective those Leading (76%) and those Being led (77%) highlighted that ‘time to reflect on your leadership practice and impact’ was ‘very important’. However, when asked to score ‘I have time to reflect on my leadership role – daily’ only 11% and mid-level academics and 7% professional service agreed, in contrast to 32% of Executive level academics and 28% of dual role Academic and professional services roles
- Development opportunities: 58% ‘definitely and mostly agree’ that they are provided opportunities to develop leadership skills and competencies; 42% of respondents did not agree (neutral or disagree)
- Values: When asked, ‘(Leading) To what extent do your institution’s values influence your approach to leadership?’, 35% of those working in institutions with a published set of values reported ‘very much’ and 47% ‘somewhat’; with 14% ‘not very’ and 5% ‘not at all. Similarly, when asked, ‘(Being led) To what extent are your institution’s stated values reflected in the approach to leadership in the organisation?’, 22% reported ‘very much’; 49% ‘somewhat’; 21% ‘not very’ and 8% ‘not at all’
- Effective Leadership Qualities: Respondees were in broad agreement of the importance of a number of leadership qualities, with most seeing their own capabilities more positively than others from a being led perspective: Adaptable (Leading 53%, Being led, 10%); Collaborative (58% and 10%); Self-reflective (53% and 5%); Compassionate (58% and 9%).
Alison Johns, Advance HE Chief Executive, said, “As this report reiterates, leadership is not the domain of ‘the few’, it is a core role of ‘the many’ in higher education and this report will help us at Advance HE and colleagues in the sector in our vital work to nurture, develop and encourage effective leadership at all levels, across the full range of diverse talents available.
“We will ensure that the survey findings inform our own practice in working with leaders and institutions in the field of leadership and across all our expert domains whether that be education, EDI, or governance. Evidence is key in supporting this work. We are committed to running the survey again, expanding its reach and efficacy as an important landmark for developing leaders and a barometer of leadership in higher education, and we will continue this important work to explore ‘what works’ in higher education leadership.”
Professor Shân Wareing, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, University of Northampton and Chair of Advance HE’s Strategic Advisory Group for Leadership and Management, said, “I’m delighted to welcome Advance HE’s ground breaking survey report aimed at developing current and future leaders in higher education. Challenging, nuanced, and fascinating, the report is rich in insights to support better leadership and greater diversity in leadership roles, as well as highlighting congruence and divergence in perceptions of leadership between those leading and those being led.
“Higher Education needs a new generation of leaders who can navigate the increasing challenges it faces, from funding crises, to AI, to addressing student issues such as rising student poverty and mental ill health, leadership that can sustain and realise the vision of greater equality, diversity and inclusion.
“As Chair of the Advance HE Strategic Advisory Group and in my role as Deputy Vice Chancellor of the University of Northampton, I am looking forwards to seeing how we make use of this report, and to tracking its impact over years to come”
Read the full survey report here.
Comments about the report from Fiona Lennoxsmith, Advance HE Lead Consultant, Leadership, Organisational Development & Research, and also from Revd. Prof. Will Foster, Advance HE Assistant Director – Professional Recognition are below.
“This survey shows that higher education leaders see developing a positive and enabling culture across the organisation as a key priority for them and their institutions, almost equal in importance to teaching and learning.
“We can see this theme emerging throughout the survey, and, comparing the priority areas across leadership practice, knowledge and values, we can see that staff development, engagement, inclusion and wellbeing are forefront of their minds. The confidence that the leaders have in their own abilities implies a question of how their talents can be harnessed and cascaded across their institutions and the sector at large. Leaders, and female leaders in particular, said that they could and would do more if only their systems would enable them to.
“There are real opportunities to enable leaders across the sector at all stages of development, to engage in building a thriving organisational culture, and to recognise and value, even more, the work that they are currently doing. At its core, the survey affirms the importance of key leadership qualities that are considered to be of growing importance to higher education and provides a stimulus for considering how higher education leaders of the future are developed from early career through to the most senior levels.”