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The challenges of university leadership

Professor Andrew Kakabadse addresses the challenges faced by university leaders in an increasingly diverse marketplace

In an era where UK university tuition fees have almost trebled while student admissions continue to rise, some observers have described vice-chancellors’ increased pay packets as both ‘inappropriate’ and ‘unfair,’ while ministers further attack ‘spiralling levels’ of senior pay in the sector.

Unfortunately, making universities market-driven also makes them prone to short-termism. The bulk are becoming commodity suppliers of university programmes and, in this sense, VCs are already being paid appropriately. However, no matter what the justifications, disengaged staff are a significant reality affecting both universities and the private sector. High employee turnover has become the norm, as has hiring the lowest available cost labour. When staff move on, the prevailing culture is ‘no problem, as long as we can get an appropriate replacement for the lowest cost.’

Educational leaders now have to consider where and how they might better strengthen strained staff relations and morale, while identifying how institutions can benefit from revitalised employee engagement as part of key strategy and decision-making processes.

Put simply, university chiefs possessing a heightened awareness of these important environmental developments are reappraising their leadership styles as part of an urgent effort to deliver the best possible outcomes for both students and staff.

So which key qualities count when it comes to acting as an effective leader? Applying the findings of our research into how the best CEOs and top management teams operate around the world, and considering what separates them from their more meagre contemporaries, we have drawn some key conclusions. The important mentoring influences on offer from VCs, as well as their senates, committees and advisors, should include support, stewardship and leadership. At the very top of the list is also a requirement to identify and capitalise upon a university’s distinct competitive advantage.

Being differentiated means carving out and defending a niche position in the marketplace. This is delivered not only through the skills of VCs, but also by establishing other executive roles, such as pro-VCs, in burgeoning areas, such as international and research. These positions prove not only functional, but strengthen a university’s competitive standing.

Our research with leading FTSE companies has found that many boards are significantly disengaged, and over 80% of them simply don’t know what their organisation’s competitive advantage is. This similarly applies to university leaders and their management teams.

In top management, 33% lack a shared vision, mission and strategy, and 66% say they know what is wrong with their organisation but are too inhibited to talk openly with senior colleagues about problems and solutions. This leads management to become defensive, either not giving out important information, or providing inappropriate or inadequate detail. 

Top universities are now placing a much stronger emphasis on governance and development. What is ultimately required are university boards as working bodies, as opposed to gatherings such as senates. This requires appropriately-skilled non-executives who can develop a portfolio of strategic responsibilities while focusing on teamwork and strategy. Past examples suggest the latter cannot be left to individual institutions and there is a role for government to design appropriate programmes in support of this.

Next in line is the need to introduce performance-oriented pay at faculty levels, with better trained Deans taking on crucial leadership and planning functions. The balance between teaching, research and vocational and adult development should be resolved at school level, as long as a university has developed a meaningful mission which managers and Deans can believe in and become actively engaged with.VCs and their leadership teams have a critical part in all of this, providing strategic clarity in identifying and embedding competitive advantage, professional teamwork and the
necessary facilitation skills required to work with boards. 

Are VCs born leaders? In short ‘no’. People become leaders through their experience and hard work. They strive to be more than they already are and believe in continuous development. There is no single formula which will work for every university but, as league tables, guides and other critical forms of review are used to inform a new type of higher education ‘consumer,’ a vital factor for success is to transparently determine what sort of university a VC wants, and why.

Engaging schools and faculties with this notion, as opposed to copycat behaviour when faced with new challenges, will truly ensure a university stands apart from its competitors.

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