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Top Management Programme for Higher Education - The Longitudinal Study

Advance HE's Top Management Programme for Higher Education (TMP HE) has been running for 20 years and counts over 900 of the sector's leaders as part of its alumni. In 2016 Advance HE commissioned a research study entitled Leadership Journeys: Tracking the challenge and impact of the Top Management Programme which was designed to evaluate the key aspects of the Advance HE's flagship programme.


In 2016 Advance HE commissioned a research study entitled Leadership Journeys: Tracking the challenge and impact of the Top Management Programme which was designed to evaluate the key aspects of the Advance HE's flagship programme.

The latest research highlights the impact of TMP HE and ‘highlights clear positive developmental outcomes for participants'. The study was conducted by a team from the Ulster University Business School. The team is studied the outcomes/impacts of TMP HE and searched for insights into the factors which influenced career choice, progression and promotion over time among senior higher education leaders who are alumni of this prestigious programme.

More specifically the research involved implementing a robust, mixed-method study which, as well as investigating the views of those who have participated in the TMP HE, makes comparisons with other senior leaders who have not undertaken the programme.

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About the study

'Leadership Journeys: Tracking the challenge and impact of the Top Management Programme' was undertaken by a team at Ulster University Business School and was ongoing over four years (until February 2020). The team studied the outcomes/impacts of TMP and tried to gain an insight into the factors which influenced career choice, progression and promotion over time among this group of very senior leaders in higher education.

Research objectives

The study was designed to investigate the impact and outcomes from the Top Management Programme (TMP) focusing on the individual participants, their institutions, and ultimately what such a leadership development intervention means for higher education as a whole.

The study and its design was underpinned by established leadership development literature, including publications by Morrow (2016) and Dopson et al (2016). In particular the concept of transfer literature (see McCracken 2004 and McCracken et al 2012), with reference to Baldwin and Ford’s (1988) original model of transfer, was used to develop the research objectives and resulting methodology:

  • RO1: Map the career trajectories of selected TMP alumni to date.
  • RO2: Determine the experiences of participants on the TMP (alumni, current and new as at October 2016).
  • RO3: Explore whether/how the TMP has contributed to the leadership journey of alumni.
  • RO4: Track the current and new TMP cohorts from October 2016 to October 2019 to include career pathways, aspirations, skills, characteristics and work-life balance.
  • RO5: Identify the types of influence/impact TMP alumni have made in their HE institutions.

Data collection

Retrospective Study of Top Management Programme Alumni

The retrospective element of the study which took place between September 2016 and March 2017, focused on two key elements:

One-to-one, one-hour interviews with a random stratified sample of contactable Top Management Programme (TMP) Alumni. At the close of this section of the study 50 interviews with TMP alumni were completed.

An online alumni questionnaire, sent to all contactable alumni who had not yet been invited to take part in the retrospective study. The questionnaire was live between February and March 2017 and elicited a response rate of 19% (n=95).

Using the in-depth information from the interviews along with the broader data regarding the TMP experience, the team was able to analyse and draw conclusions on the challenge and impact of the programme. 

Vice-Chancellors and Top Management Programme Sponsors

In February 2017 the team contacted vice-chancellors, to explore what motivates these key decision makers in higher education institutions to sponsor their senior management colleagues to participate in such development programmes as the TMP. At the close of this section of the study interviews with 12 sponsors were completed.

Top Management Programme Five-Year, Longitudinal Study

Over the course of the research study the team worked with six Top Management Programme cohorts: 

  • TMP 39 (October 2016-April 2017)
  • TMP 40 (April 2017-October 2017)
  • TMP 41 (October 2017 – April 2018)
  • TMP 42 (April-September 2018)
  • TMP 43 (October 2018 – April 2019)
  • TMP 44 (April 2019 – October 2019)

Each participant on the programme was invited to take part in three online questionnaires. The first questionnaire was sent on the orientation day of the programme, the second six months of completion of the programme and the third six months post participation.

Story based evaluation

Another facet of the research was the story-based evaluation data collection initiative. This aspect of the research acknowledged that Leadership is a social and contextual process and leadership development is subtle and often changes in leadership practice are not easily attributable to one programme or experience. Recognising these challenges, the research team developed a ‘Story-based Evaluation’ model.

TMP alumni in this element of the research are asked to select four colleagues who are felt to have had sufficient opportunity to observe the TMP participants practice and who could provide accurate stories regarding their leadership during the last twelve months.

Leadership stories are real situations where the colleague observes the TMP participant, for example: working to improve institutional performance; shaping institutional strategy; bringing about change; and/or working collaboratively for the benefit of the institution. Colleagues are asked to only provide stories that are positive experiences of the TMP participant’s leadership.

Ultimately this stage of the research is designed to rethink how we evaluate leadership development programmes and to uncover the often intangible and emergent benefits and effects of a programme like the TMP.

Research ethics

This research was approved by the Ulster University Business School Research Ethics Committee which overseas all research involving human participants. The committee noted that this research was classified as Category A in that there was a low level of ethical risk involved given that no vulnerable groups were involved in the data collection for the research. 

The advisory group

Gary Loke (Chair), Director of knowledge, insights, innovation and delivery, Advance HE

Professor John Arnold, Professor of organisational behaviour in the School of Business and Economics, Loughborough University (John is also part of the research team of the Leadership Foundation’s Aurora ‘Onwards and Upwards’ longitudinal study)

Professor Rosemary Deem OBE, Vice-principal (education), Royal Holloway, University of London

Alison Johns, (ex officio) Chief executive, Advance HE

Stephen Marston, Vice-chancellor and chief executive/chief operating officer, University of Gloucestershire

Tracy Bell-Reeves, Director of programmes and events, Advance HE

Professor Gerry McGivern, Professor of organisational analysis, Warwick Business School, University of Warwick

Professor Bruce Macfarlane, Professor of higher education and head of School of Education, University of Bristol

The project team

Dr Martin McCracken, Research director, Ulster University Business School

Martin has extensive experience in undertaking commissioned research for organisations such as the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development; British Academy; Department for Education and Employment; Sector Skills Development Agency and Leonardo Da Vinci (EU). Martin is the lead researcher, Leadership Journeys: Tracking the Challenge and Impact of the Top Management Programme and Research Director, Ulster University Business School

Mark McCrory, Lecturer in management, Ulster University Business School

Before taking up his lecturing role at Ulster University, Mark was a senior consultant for International Training Services (ITS) Ltd, a consultancy specialising in management and leadership development to drive organisational change.

Professor Heather Farley, Professor of management development and associate dean (education), Ulster University.

Heather is a principal fellow of the Higher Education Academy, and has taught a range of undergraduate and postgraduate courses, in addition to the supervision of PhD students. Recent collaborative research has included developing an engagement model for management education, and on effectively incorporating learning technologies to enhance assessment and feedback practice. 

Professor Marie McHugh, Professor of organisational behaviour, Ulster University Business School.

Over many years, Marie has been actively involved with the British Academy of Management, serving on its council and executive in various roles including chair and president, with responsibility for capacity building within the academic community of UK business schools.