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Leadership in higher education: It should be all about the people

  • 10 November 2022
  • By Ceri Nursaw

This blog by Ceri Nursaw, the Chief Executive of NCEE, is the eighth entry in our current series on leadership in higher education.

For the first time, we have seen that for leaders the biggest challenge is ensuring they lead their teams well.  From our NCEE Higher Education Leadership Report 2022 through to articles featured in leadership blogs (such as McKinsey and Co) people feature. For the first time in the NCEE report, staff wellbeing tops the list of priority activities for higher education leaders.  We may be facing one of the most complex and difficult times with challenges on policy and finances but this pales into insignificance compared to people.  The challenge ranges from recruiting the right people, retaining those people and maintaining motivation and engagement. 

Through NCEE’s leadership programmes, we have seen many inspirational and successful higher education leaders who are supportive of their teams. Yet within the sector, some universities do have a way to go to support their staff. The COVID pandemic has been a true test for organisations.  It has meant we have faced directly some cultural practices that were not effective – presenteeism, supervision rather than management and inflexibility. The move to remote working has tested organisations in terms of what is the working day, how do you manage from a distance and work-life balance.  We have still not quite worked it through yet and many challenges remain:

  1. How to blend online and face to face working?
  2. How much should our team members do in a working day?
  3. And even, what is a working day?

Leading within higher education requires a different approach than many other places.  We cannot take management structures and practices that are being used in other places and squeeze them into our universities.  We are different organisations, we are not driven by profit – at our heart is learning – co-creation of knowledge with our students. Many staff are driven by different motivations than in the corporate sector.  

We need to contemplate our leadership differently.  Our leaders have shown we need to adopt entrepreneurial leadership.  Practically this means:

  • Empowering our team members: Our new way of working ditches the presenteeism of the past.  It involves trust, trust to get on with the job. Being at a desk does not mean productivity. Dr Matt Webster when at Anglia Ruskin ought to ‘empower our people to increase the quality of their outputs’, noting there is ‘no value in watching someone undertaking knowledge work’. 
  • Allowing for different styles of working: We’ve long known that 9am-5pm does not work for everyone.  During the pandemic we saw that clearly as leaders grappled with implementing huge organisational changes while trying to ensure that team members balanced their other life commitments. Limiting the working day – turning off at 5pm – does not always work. Those with caring responsibilities, for example, may prefer to take time off in the day and then work later or some may wish to work condensed hours, creating longer weekends.  Embracing difference alongside ensuring the working day does not stretch unreasonably to push out relaxation, family and life is a challenge and requires personalisation. We need to embrace difference and learn what works for each team member.  As leaders, we should encourage part-time, condensed hours, and weekly / monthly flexibility but also the absolute need for time away from work.
  • Creating meaningful times for face-to-face interaction, debate and discussion during the working day: The belief remains that when we are in the office there will be high-quality discussion and interaction.  Is that always the case?  Think about what ‘being in’ really means.  I know we are people-facing organisations but how much of that time is spent with people away from our screens?  An engaged interaction is better than one rushed or in-between Zoom calls. There is no doubting the richness of debate and discussion that can happen face-to-face, but let us not leave it to serendipity.  Let us have a rethink of how we structure our time in the office. When we are in, we should create more opportunities for engaged conversations.
  • Embracing the positive aspects of online and remote working: There are so many benefits to online working.  The speed you can make decisions, the ability to just grab a chat with someone you are not co-located with, the way it can fit in with life.  Mary Stuart when at Lincoln University [] described how colleagues found it ‘much easier to get in touch with people, and to progress initiatives and partnerships’. Used responsibly and with thought, online working can offer huge advantages. 

Organisations need a job doing, but how that job is done is up to us.  As Mark Bacon at Keele University put it the pandemic has given us an opportunity to consider ‘how we think about the health and wellbeing of staff and students more fundamentally’. The more we can offer hyper-personalisation to the way our teams can work, the greater productivity and motivation there will be.   

HEPI’s new report on research leadership is being discussed today at Universities UK’s Research and Innovation Conference.

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