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What works for leadership in higher education? Let’s find out …

  • 20 October 2022
  • By Alison Johns

Alison Johns, Chief Executive, Advance HE, urges all leaders in higher education and related organisations to complete the inaugural Global Leadership Survey for Higher Education and be part of this global conversation. It is a chance to have your say and shape the future of higher education leadership.

There has probably never been a better time to ask and explore our central question: what works for leadership in higher education? The sector’s response to COVID-19 brought this question into sharp focus, with fast decisions needed at the same time as maintaining a collaborative and inclusive culture. 

In 2020, the international consulting firm McKinsey & Company described the pandemic as ‘the toughest leadership test’, and I think they were right. So, the timing of the first-ever Global Leadership Survey for higher education is particularly significant given the turbulence caused by the pandemic and the need for individuals and institutions around the world to reflect on what they have learnt and what they might consider to do next, and when I say ‘they’, I include leaders at every level of experience.

The inspiration behind the survey

A key part of the inspiration for the survey is a long-standing ambition to develop a leadership framework for the sector broadly equivalent to the highly influential and widely adopted Professional Standards Framework for teaching and supporting student learning in higher education. We know from our members that this is something they would welcome. However, to underpin this, we wanted to begin by developing with the sector, working globally, a strong and ongoing evidence base for higher education leadership at every level, and that has been the impetus for creating a new annual leadership survey.  

While there are some good examples of focused research papers on higher education leadership, currently answers to our question of ‘what works?’ are largely anecdotal or else they draw upon research and ideas from the broader leadership literature. We want to get beyond that to something far more sector-focused and applied.

The time is now ripe to work collaboratively with the sector towards a stronger, more structured, evidence-informed and useful set of insights about leading and leadership in higher education.

When we began this project at the start of the scoping study in August 2021 I said, ‘We can’t leave leadership development to chance, it’s too important’. I absolutely stand by that. We know that across all sectors leadership remains the foremost talent issue facing organisations around the world and ‘a shortage of leaders is one of the biggest impediments to growth’. So, it is no exaggeration to say that getting leadership right, wherever it is being exercised and with all the subtleties and complexities that come with that statement, is essential to the future of our sector.

Completing the survey

The survey is open to anyone who self-identifies as a leader at whatever level of experience or responsibility. It is only in this way that the survey will help us to develop the richest picture possible of contemporary higher education leadership.

We want vice-chancellors and chief executives to complete the survey and we want programme directors, heads of service units and research project leaders to complete it, too. It is a global survey, so we welcome participation from colleagues right around the world.

The term ‘higher education’ is therefore used as convenient shorthand as the survey aims to capture information related to leadership within the higher education, tertiary, and research sector, including research institutes.

I have completed the survey along with everybody in my executive group, and I am encouraging everyone else in our organisation with a leadership role, formal or informal, at all levels and areas to complete it, too.

We have deliberately used a very broad definition of leader / leadership in recognition of the diversity of roles and relationships across the sector. This embraces both formal and informal leadership, including on the informal side leading through influence, expertise, mentoring others, and so on.

A helping hand

How will the information generated help the higher education sector? Simply speaking, it should provide a level of insight regarding leadership the sector has never had access to before.

Even more simply, year-on-year the information gathered will help all of us, as individuals and institutions, to enhance and improve our leadership, answering the question, ‘What leadership and what leadership culture do we need to be both effective as an organisation and a place where people feel they belong?’ That insight, that ‘objective data’, will help inform everything from strategic planning through to individual leader recruitment and development. Forward-thinking institutions will definitely want to take advantage of that.

The outputs from the survey will inform our collective understanding about leadership in the higher education sector and will be used to provide clarity to invest in leaders, support leadership development, recognise effective practice, plan leadership structures and capacity, and grow the talent needed for tomorrow. The outputs will also be available to support further leadership research and organisational development and will underpin our ongoing work to develop a global leadership framework for higher education.

Have your say

How often do you get a chance to have your say about higher education leadership? It is something many of us have strong feelings about but, perhaps, little opportunity to really influence. This is a chance to add your voice to something which will make a real and positive difference.

Completing the survey is an interesting and enjoyable reflective experience. It can help you think more deeply about both your leadership and the context within which you lead. It does this by exploring questions related to you as a leader, how you are led by others, and your views on leadership in your organisation and across the sector.

It is also a highly collegial thing to do. In completing the survey, you are joining a global community in creating the richest possible picture of contemporary higher education leadership.

If you think about it, there is something in this for everyone. Enhancing leadership will lead to better institutions and better lives. And that is crucial to all of us, and those we serve, in an ever more complex and turbulent world.

So, have your say and spread the word. Please encourage others in your organisations and networks, at every level, to take the survey. Every voice matters.

Don’t miss your chance to take part. The survey will close on 8 November 2022 and its findings will be published as an open access report for the benefit of the sector. Find out more and complete the survey here.

HEPI is running a series of blogs on leadership with the National Centre for Entrepreneurship in Education (NCEE). See our posts below:

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