Leadership Capability in Higher Education

Leadership Capability in Higher Education

By Rachel Gascoigne

League tables, National Student Surveys, Teaching Excellence Framework, Research Excellence Framework, £9,000 tuition fees, and now graduate employability outcomes. The challenges facing University leaders today are very different to those of 10 years ago. Universities now operate in an increasingly competitive environment where performance is constantly measured. Gone are the days when Principals and Vice Chancellors spent their time walking corridors and engaging in academic debate. Today you are more likely to see the Vice Chancellor, or the Chief Executive as many are becoming known, in a media photoshoot connecting with business leaders or politicians, attempting to generate additional income and increase the University’s external profile.

Even within the middle management structures of our universities, the Heads of Schools and Departments now have little capacity to discuss the academic merits of the curriculum. Instead they are being challenged to innovate teaching and its delivery, find ways to ensure students ‘enjoy’ their study, and perhaps most controversially, ensure that high marks are attained at the end of study to enhance the employment prospects of their students. In brief, Heads of Department are having to operate like the Managing Directors of small businesses competing nationally and globally under a large (university) corporate franchise.

Central to maximising organisational performance lies the question of leadership at all levels. Yet many education professionals will have progressed through academia into senior leaderships roles without having had the opportunity to learn and develop the skills and capabilities they need.

So how can Universities support their leaders to develop? The table below shows how the expectations placed on HE leaders have evolved.

These changes in expectations require today’s leaders to have skills and capabilities more aligned to the commercial world. Specifically, they need:

Essentially, and for the avoidance of doubt, leadership can be learned. At Wickland Westcott we combine commercial knowledge with first-hand educational expertise to co-create bespoke HE development programmes. We positively impact organisational performance by helping leaders and managers gain confidence, and begin to operate as true commercial leaders, rather than simply as academics with management responsibility.


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