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Reflections on leadership in higher education – a blog series

  • 8 December 2022
  • By Ceri Nursaw

This blog was kindly contributed by Ceri Nursaw, Chief Executive of the National Centre for Entrepreneurship in Education (NCEE). Over 12 weeks, HEPI has hosted blogs exploring the topic of leadership in higher education. In the final post in the series, Ceri reflects on some of the series’ key messages.

Our Autumn Talking Leadership series with HEPI has allowed us to explore different approaches to the challenges and change that the sector faces. At NCEE we have been running leadership development programmes for more than 10 years and we recognise that the amount of change and challenge is now on an epic scale. 

This was borne out by James Ransom, Head of Research at NCEE, who used NCEE’s Leadership Survey to highlight that the top three challenges facing higher education leaders are ‘dealing with complexity, demands on time and managing continual change and uncertainty’. And this is unlikely to be any different into the future. As Ian Dunn, Provost at Coventry University put it, ‘Change is required. Change is essential. To lead change with purpose and direction is always a challenge.’  Dunn called on the sector to ‘train our leaders to manage and cope with change and we need as many of them as possible to step forward.’  This call was echoed by Lesley Dobree, Emerita Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Anglia Ruskin University, who wrote that it was times such as these ‘that investment is most needed to ensure senior leaders develop and adapt their leadership skills and capabilities to respond to the changing environment’. Dobree quoted former US President John F. Kennedy, ‘leadership and learning are indispensable to each other’.

So, as we seek to be more innovative, seize opportunities and introduce change there will be risk. With risk comes failure and, as Adam Shore, Director of the School of Business and Management at Liverpool John Moores University argued, we must learn from failure and use it to drive success in our universities. Shore argued that ‘consistency and low risk are more highly valued by metrics. Yet resilience, creative thinking, coping with ambiguity and dealing with adversity are key skills that employers and future leaders require.’  To be entrepreneurial, Pauline Miller JuddDirector of the NCEE Entrepreneurial Heads Programme and Associate Professor at Edinburgh Napier University, argued that you need energy and capacity. Miller Judd offered some personal advice, from blocking out time to think to getting some fresh air and staying hydrated. 

Mary Stuart, Emeritus Vice-Chancellor of the University of Lincoln, recognised in her article that an ‘organisation is never static but has a diverse, changing and engaged team that will support and sustain the organisation into the future.’  Stuart called for permeable leadership where ‘permeability and working across boundaries is embedded in an organisation, that can form the bedrock of a culture of innovation and enable good debate and discussion to create strong ideas and implementation of valuable change which will benefit the university for years to come.’  To achieve this, Kevin Kerrigan, Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Sheffield Hallam University, argued that the time had come for Entrepreneurial Universities. Kerrigan argued that it was ‘timely to challenge perceptions, reboot our brand and make the political case for nurturing entrepreneurial attributes through encouragement, incentives and investment’. Kerrigan’s vision was ‘for a new kind of excellent university that makes a positive impact in the real world’. Martin Betts, Emeritus Professor at Griffith University, Ian Dunn, Provost at Coventry University, and I described it as a purposeful university which is ‘willing to stand out from the pack of bunched competitors. Such an institution is purposeful in seeking to pursue non-traditional goals and achieve success measured by non-traditional metrics in research, teaching and learning’.

To be an entrepreneurial university Ken Sloan, Vice-Chancellor of Harper Adams University, pointed out that we need to place institutions firmly in the context of equality, diversity and inclusion. Sloan argued ‘that a truly enterprising and entrepreneurial university is one where all its people have the opportunity to contribute, and also where people of any background have the opportunity to participate. The solutions universities are seeking to develop with and for society are intended to be beneficial for all people, so the route to identify and curate those solutions should mobilise a university’s entire talent base.’  This built on the article by Sara Spear, Dean of the Faculty of Business and Law at St Mary’s University who argued for ‘leadership for belonging’. This is where we act ‘as leaders in a way that will foster belonging is vital in order to deliver on sector-wide imperatives, and also recognises, and seeks to fulfil, the deep human need for belonging in us all.’  

We know that the series’ reflections on leadership resonated with many. We look forward to prompting further reflection and conversations in our next series with HEPI in the spring, featuring new contributors and topics. 

The full list of contributions to our series on leadership:

Future HEPI events:

  • On Tuesday 13 December 2022, HEPI and the University of the Arts London are hosting an event to launch major new research on new HE funding options, produced by London Economics. More information is available here.

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