Lead the way

We need to rethink our approach to leadership in HE, says Alison Johns

Books espousing the latest leadership fads are a common sight in bookshops. The debate around what makes effective leadership is an ongoing one across all organisations but in higher education there is a particular need for clarity around what good leadership looks like, and what its purpose is. 

Motivating staff and helping higher education to remain relevant for society in a competitive global context are some of the key challenges facing leaders.   

We recently launched the findings of the Leadership Foundation survey of Higher Education Leadership and Management – known as HELMs. This is the first large and comprehensive study looking at the experience of leadership from the perspective of governors, senior leaders and line managers. Our HELMs sample broadly reflects higher education when compared to the Higher Education Statistics Agency data, and shows that over four in five in the sector believe more should be done to develop future institutional leaders that are able to meet today’s challenges.

In particular, our results highlight, that despite best efforts there remains a critical need to create more robust leadership development opportunities and to increase the diversity of those occupying leadership positions. There are some key challenges around this at present: the pathways to formal leadership positions are seen by many as unclear and more than half of employees in the sector feel they would need to leave their university in order to progress in their careers. This perceived lack of transparency on routes to progression and lack of succession planning is one of the major challenges for universities and higher education colleges. 

Sustainable investment in support programmes such as formal mentoring and sponsorship schemes could help to create greater diversity at leadership level

Diversity is also another challenge: the results show an under-representation of black and Asian academics in leadership and management positions and a large number of those working within the sector report an awareness of the difficulties for women and those from black and minority ethnic backgrounds. Significantly, this concern did not appear to be reflected at the governor level – at the time of the survey, fewer than one in ten governors identified ‘increasing diversity’ as a means through which leadership in the higher education sector could be improved.

There is of course, consensus in the belief that there is a real need for leadership in higher education to better reflect the society it serves. The real challenge is in how to achieve that change. Most recently we have been developing our portfolio by creating a series of courses, programmes and interventions for university staff, senior leaders and governors that will support the change that higher education is seeking.

Sustainable investment in support programmes such as formal mentoring and sponsorship schemes could help to create greater diversity at leadership level. Aside from the lack of adequate opportunities for leadership development within universities, the challenges of high workloads and strain on personal and family lives are acute pressures for women occupying leadership positions. 60 per cent of male academics are happy with their work-life balance compared to fewer than 40 per cent of female leaders. We know from our work this imbalance continues to be seen as a deterrent for those looking to step up and shows that more targeted interventions are needed to support those who face greater challenges accessing and remaining in leadership positions. 

One of the greatest opportunities for a strong and sustainable sector lies in creating more credible leadership opportunities for those with the ambition and potential to progress. Right now, we are working on collaborative approaches to leadership development to ensure that the needs of higher education are met, for today and tomorrow. 

Alison Johns is the Chief Executive of the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education.

W: www.lfhe.ac.uk

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