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Invest in programme leaders to invest in success

25 Apr 2022 | Dr Charles Knight Charles Knight, Senior Advisor (Learning and Teaching) Advance HE discusses the importance of Programme Leaders in Higher Education for universities to provide a transformational experience and why this informal leadership position needs support and development.

What if I told you your university Learning and Teaching strategy was unlikely to be successful? You’d likely point to how it was developed and how it will be carried out. I would instead point to the people you expect to implement it.  

The capability of a university to provide a transformational learning experience is directly related to the quality of both its formal and informal leaders. The programme leader (PL) is a perfect example of an informal leader who can act as a powerful force for change and innovation on a day-to-day basis. It is generally they, not official leaders, who can make all the operational changes needed to make a strategy work.  

The ability of PLs to have impact is not a matter of random chance, it requires university leadership teams who invest in their training and development. If a university fails to support PLs it fails to support the successful implementation of its own learning and teaching strategy. 

The Enhancing Programme Leadership work undertaken by Advance HE is designed to ensure that these leaders in teaching and learning get that vital development to make an impact on the student experience, but also understand their own individual potential to make a difference.  

An effective programme leader will help to create educational spaces where students can grow and develop, build their own networks, and create personal narratives of success. The very best work with colleagues across a university to create a sense of both challenge and belonging that means that students leave with more confidence and social capital than when they arrived.   

This is not something that comes naturally and PLs need support in understanding what tools and techniques will enable them to draw together the right people at the right time for impact. They need the ability to assess where a possible challenge is an opportunity to do something different or do something better.  

Underpinning all their activities is the fact that PLs often operate with no line management response and must navigate complex political landscapes to ensure that they can influence the actions of others to improve a programme or overcome resistance to change. At the same time, they must manage upwards and the sometimes-unrealistic expectations for positive improvements on short timescales. 

Finally, if you are committed to your programme leaders, you are committed their development in ways that will take them away from programme leadership roles and onto the next stage of their career.  During Enhancing Programme Leadership, we ask participants to consider how they will use the role to grow as individuals and academics.  

I will finish by posing some questions to university leaders and for programme leaders to ask University leaders: 

  • If you analyse your current role description for programme leaders – does it reflect the skills and capabilities that programme leaders need, both now and for the next decade?
  • If you are expecting programmes leaders to be actual leaders in learning and teaching – how much development do they get per year purely as leaders?  

  • What are the mechanisms in your university for programme leaders to be able to share best-practice and problems – is there a forum for such debate? 

  • How is programme leadership recognised in your promotion and progression criteria?  



Charles Knight is a Senior Advisor (Learning and Teaching) at Advance HE. Previously he was an Associate Dean (Student Experience) at Salford Business School, and has worked extensively across the sector with universities on strategy and leadership. 

Enhancing Programme Leadership
This programme is an online offer that aims to support programme leaders at a time when they may be new to leadership, or looking to gain confidence in their leadership skills. It will address their unique challenges, opportunities and realities, by developing their networks and skills and providing tools to enable them to thrive in this unique role. Find out more.

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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