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Inspiring leadership? HEPI report highlights leadership challenge in HE today

  • 28 February 2013

A HEPI report on leadership in Higher Education published 28 February 2013 and written by Ewart Wooldridge, the founding Chief Executive of the Leadership Foundation, sets out the challenges facing today’s HE leaders in an environment which has changed fundamentally over recent years.  Considering the pressures on top leaders, senior teams and governing bodies during an intense period of change in the sector, Ewart Wooldridge considers whether the culture has changed fast enough and whether the essential values remain intact as the work continues to develop HE leaders to run complex businesses.

In providing a valuable reflection on his time establishing and running the Leadership Foundation, Ewart Wooldridge raises questions about the legacy of heroic leadership, and highlights the disappointing record on diversity in leadership, as well as the work still to be done to develop a better rapport between academics and professional staff.

Commenting on his HEPI report, Ewart Wooldridge said:  “The Leadership Foundation was born ten years ago at a turning point in the recent history of UK higher Education. The debate over £3000 fees was reaching a crescendo, the devolved administrations of the UK were starting to go their separate ways and internationalisation was becoming a central issue. Widening participation was a core objective of governments but was almost bound to falter.

Over those ten years, the pressures on university leaders have grown hugely.  Higher Education has shifted from being collaborative to competitive and market driven, from a sector to a looser system, from national to transnational, and from certain to uncertain.  Today, the key requirements of university leadership seem to be agility, distinctiveness and the capacity to spot the right kind of alliance to build resilience in the face of competition and uncertainty. But also the ability to manage the paradox of operating in a market whilst still upholding the traditional values of the sector.

But something else is happening – the elements of the traditional psychological contract between universities and their students, staff, governors, stakeholders, local communities, funders and governments are all changing. Funding sources have shifted, students are demanding more of a consumer/customer relationship. At the same time, staff will demand a higher level of engagement as the landscape changes, and local communities and governments have a higher expectation of the contribution of their universities.

All this has had a profound effect on leaders in HE. The sector’s leadership has equipped itself very well over these ten years, but has it responded quickly enough? ”

Dr Mark Pegg, the current Chief Executive of the Leadership Foundation, said:  “Ewart had a vital part to play in creating and building a strong Leadership Foundation.  Today it is a vital part of leadership development in the UK HE sector.  His account shows the huge changes he was able to effect in the last decade.  His legacy is a powerful and highly credible force at the heart of the UK HE sector, capable of helping leaders take on the complex challenges they face in rapidly changing world. ”

A copy of HEPI Occasional Report 5: Inspiring Leadership is available for download here.  The report is part of an occasional series of HEPI Reports in which HEPI provides a platform for distinguished figures to reflect on important issues in higher education policy.

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