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Invest in programme leaders to meet the complexity of 2023

19 Dec 2022 | Dr Charles Knight Charles Knight, Senior Consultant (Education) at 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.

As we head into 2023, higher education continues to be a place where the need to be responsive to student needs in an increasingly complex socio-economic environment will provide challenges against a climate of declining resources due to inflation and rapid technological change.  

As an example of this – does your university have a strategy and implementation plan on how to deal with academic integrity issues around AI written assessments?

Responding to that single issue will require not only University-level leadership and vision, but teams of people who can provide the informal leadership to make operational changes at speed. This will occur alongside considering how to react to the cost-of-living crisis, and increasing concerns over student experience and attendance. Because of this, there is a question of capacity development and your overall plan to make sure the right individuals are leading your programmes with the right skills to overcome such challenges.

The programme leader (PL) is therefore your ‘force multiplier’ who can dramatically enhance your ability to change and create meaningful impact at a cultural and operational level where students notice it most. The most impactful programme leaders are those who have skills, systems and frameworks they can apply to a range of complex situations. This is something that is too important to be left to chance.

Enhancing Programme Leadership (EPL) offered by Advance HE provides a structured development programme to help individuals develop their skill sets but also understand different strategies to approaching challenging and fast-moving situations. It presents an investment by you into their future activities. By making your programme leader more effective, they will in turn be better equipped to manage the complex changing environments we face, but also bring colleagues along with them on the journey as partners. They will also be better equipped to work in partnership with students, employers and other groups. The EPL course is centred around the fact that PLs are generally informal leaders, their ability to influence challenge therefore is via soft power and the building of communities of purpose to achieve common goals. At the same time, they must be sensitive of, and responsive to, the need to manage relationships upwards to obtain resources and support.

From the perspective of the participants, beyond signalling your support for their development now, you are also creating the conditions for their continued career development. During EPL, we ask participants to consider how they will use the role to grow as individuals and academics. Furthermore, based on feedback from previous participants with this cohort of EPL, there will be an opportunity for staff to opt-in for some additional activities around developing a project that will have measurable impact on the programmes that they lead, and to also evidence their ability as an informal leader.

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

  • Do your programme leaders have the right skills to have challenging conversations about quality, student experience and outcomes against a growing “metric tide”?
  • Where have you asked programme leaders to lead in change processes – how much development activity have you done to support them in being a leader?


Charles Knight is a Senior Consultant (Education) 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.

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