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What works for leadership in higher education?

06 Sep 2022 | Doug Parkin Doug Parkin, Principal Adviser for Leadership and Management at Advance HE, introduces the report from a year-long scoping study commissioned to inform the development of a global leadership survey for higher education and related organisations

The Advance HE Global Leadership Survey for Higher Education, designed on the basis of this report and the research findings, will be launched on 20 September 2022.

The report

Findings from a scoping study is an understated title for a very significant report and piece of research. Look beneath the surface of this heading and you will find a publication that presents a deep and discursive exposition of leadership in global higher education based on a robust mixed methods approach. Underpinned by an extensive literature review, the main body of the research captures a range of voices and perspectives on issues relating to contemporary higher education (HE). Through facilitated discussion and large group interactions this essentially collaborative piece of research, taking a whole community approach, brought together colleagues from across the sector, a diverse mix of academic, professional services and executive/management staff, as well as a range of HE-associated bodies. I commend this report to everyone interested in the future of higher education leadership.

The report presents an overview of insights and findings from 11 round tables and four dissemination and engagement events. From October to December 2021, 11 two-hour online round tables on the nature and purpose(s) of leadership in contemporary higher education were run. Following these, four large-group dissemination and engagement events were hosted in February and March 2022 to share emerging findings and gather wider perspectives on the issues raised. These conversations “provided rich and revealing insights into a turbulent and changing HE landscape”, to quote the report authors, and the report itself draws these together to present significant observations regarding HE leadership in terms of context, values, purpose and effective leadership qualities.

The study

Almost a year ago, Advance HE commissioned this scoping study to inform the development of a global leadership survey for higher education. At the centre of the study we placed a deceptively simple question, What works for leadership in higher education? 

I would like to pay particular thanks to the authors of this report for undertaking the scoping study:

•            Professor Richard Watermeyer, University of Bristol

•            Professor Richard Bolden, University of the West of England

•            Dr Cathryn Knight, University of Bristol (previously Swansea University)

•            Jonas Holm, Aarhus University.

I would also like to thank Professor Bruce Macfarlane (The Education University of Hong Kong) who played a significant role in leading the literature review at the outset of this project.

As a research team they, of course, brought a high level of skill and rigour to the research process. Just as importantly, they contributed fantastic facilitation skills working with sector colleagues to generate a powerful series of open discussions about contemporary HE leadership.

Our thanks must also go to all the sector colleagues who participated in the scoping study or expressed an interest in being involved.

The timing of this study is particularly significant given the turbulence caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and the need for individuals and institutions around the world to reflect on what they have learnt and what they need to do next. Leadership, the impact of context, and the meaning of organisational values have come under the spotlight in ways few have previously experienced. While challenging, this presents a unique opportunity for fresh insight.

The findings

As you will see, this is a report in three parts. However, importantly, the authors acknowledge that the three thematic areas concerned are profoundly indivisible. These originated out of the literature review element of the study: firstly, the context in which people are working and leading; secondly, what that means for values and purpose in HE leadership; and thirdly, insights regarding the skills, competencies and behaviours (leadership qualities) that would enable or enhance effective HE leadership now and moving into the future. 

The following short extracts from the report highlight these three areas and their interconnectedness:

  • Regarding context – “The HE landscape continually provides a complex and changing background against which understandings and experiences of leadership must be assessed. An ability to recognise and respond appropriately to contextual cues is a key requirement for HE leaders and organisations.”
  • Linking to values – “Values-based leadership is an ideal of HE leadership that is inhibited by ‘hard’ realities shaping what is and what is not possible for HE leaders and those they lead. The ability to deliver on values and purpose is inextricably shaped by personal context and work setting.”
  • And on leadership qualities – “The research has identified a series of [11] skills, competencies and behaviours that are believed to underpin ‘good’ leadership (both ethical and effective) within the current and emerging landscape of higher education… Being ‘authentic’, ‘collaborative’ and ‘credible’, were identified as hallmarks of good leadership.”

Spread throughout the report are a wide range of specific and illustrative extracts from the discussions that formed the core of this research. These are exciting to see. They range from fairly objective observations to more challenging assertions regarding things like the political environment and harmful dissonances in organisational values. Taken from the section exploring what HE leaders should be focused on, this contribution from an early career academic is a strong example:

It is about authenticity. We’re not going to survive unless we have leaders that have a set of values that are not just parroted because that is what the university says it is. They know what their own values are, I suppose, and they don’t compromise on those in the face of political pressure or external pressure.

The survey

This report, while a powerful resource in its own right, also heralds the launch of the Advance HE Global Leadership Survey for Higher Education on 20 September 2022. Through commissioning the scoping study in July 2021 Advance HE embarked upon a collaborative journey of co-creation with the sector to develop and refine a survey blueprint. One of the defined outputs for the research was the development of a set of recommendations for the leadership survey and an outline design consisting of potential questions and question areas. The survey is, therefore, the next stage of enquiry examining our fundamental ‘what works?’ question.

The survey is based very closely on the findings and format of the scoping study. Taking between 10 and 20 minutes to complete, as the figure below illustrates the survey consists of three core sections: appreciation of context, values (linked to purpose), and effective leadership qualities, all situated within a complex and ever-changing environment.

Environment - leadership survey

The survey design mirrors the scoping study findings as regards defining leadership effectiveness, or ‘good’ leadership. Far from coming up with a simple set of static leadership traits, or a dogma focused on results, the conversations in the study revealed values and qualities that interact fluidly with context (internal and external) to form the complex pieces of an even more complex puzzle. Within the systems, strategies and structures of often quite turbulent institutional environments, the importance of an authentic, values-based approach to leading both self and others came through again and again. The notion of ‘good’ leadership is, therefore, cast as both technical and ethical.

The survey is aimed at leaders at all levels, in a formal or informal role. For the purpose of the survey a broad definition of leader/leadership is adopted in recognition of the diversity of roles and relationships across the HE sector. As a global survey, we welcome participation from colleagues at HE institutions and related organisation around the world. Access to the survey is open to all.

Doug Parkin

Principal Adviser for Leadership and Management, Advance HE

6 September 2022

Read the report: Leadership in global higher education – findings from a scoping study

We invite you to join this important collaborative enquiry. If you would like to be sent the survey link and notified when the survey is live please register for project updates.


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