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Book Review – The New Leadership Agenda: Pandemic Perspectives from Global Universities by Martin Betts

  • 20 December 2022
  • By Troy Heffernan

This review was written by Dr Troy Heffernan. Troy is a Fulbright Scholar and Senior Lecturer at the University of Manchester’s Institute of Education. Troy’s research focuses on higher education leadership and administration, with a particular focus on investigating the inequities that persist in the sector.

To anyone focused on higher education leadership or administration research, or those interested in how universities are run, a primary significance of Martin Betts’ The New Leadership AgendaPandemic Perspectives from Global Universities is the collection of interviews with 50 past and current higher education leaders. As someone who has carried out similar qualitative work, the effort and hurdles involved in recruiting even a small number of participants from the upper echelons of university management is significant. The data, and thus the findings, that can be generated from 50 such participants are rare starting points and they lead to insights from a broad spectrum of leaders. Betts also engages with leaders from a breadth of universities of varying sizes, wealth, locations, and overall foci; he includes those which are at the forefront of global research and those which focus more intently on their teaching; and he hears from leaders from other organisations who work within the higher education sector.

A majority of the leaders are located within Australia’s higher education industry which may at first seem like a limitation, but I would argue it is an opportunity. For two decades, the likes of Lew Zipin and John Smyth have warned the global university sector of the dangers Australia’s higher education system represents as a sector that has already travelled significantly further down the neoliberal road than many other global sectors. With this knowledge in mind, Betts’ interviews and his participants’ responses provide insights into spaces most people will never see or engage with, in an industry that has been forced towards the corporate model after decades of lacklustre government funding and support.   

The book is divided across five major themes, and across these themes almost every aspect of the university function within society, obligations to staff and students, how history has shaped the sector today, and what things might look like into the future is covered. These discussions are inexplicably intertwined with the consequences of COVID on the higher education sector. While the Australian federal government largely abandoned higher education during the pandemic and let tens of thousands of academics and professional staff members join the unemployment line, COVID nonetheless impacted each university differently depending on its location (in relation to lockdowns and border restrictions), and their reliance on profits sourced from the international student market

The honesty with which these issues are discussed is what makes this work such an informative book. To read about leaders of institutions worth billions of dollars, that employ thousands of people and transfer knowledge to tens of thousands of students, discuss the complexity of leading an institution in an underfunded sector that, like most educational settings, does not receive widespread public support, provides new understandings of the concerns that fill the highest offices of university governance. Betts’ interviews see university leaders discuss the issues they confront, the challenges they face in solving these issues, and the acceptance that some people will not be satisfied with how these problems are resolved.

The insights Betts’ work provides are invaluable and provide a unique perspective and information source for anyone interested in how the higher education sector operates. Nevertheless, for all the uniqueness and benefits of having interviewees willing to share their names and affiliations, we must also accept that this comes with limitations. Despite the openness and frankness of many of the interviewees within the book, many of the participants remain employees of the sector and representatives of their universities or organisations. Subsequently, we cannot pretend that marketing and selective answers do not play a role in how participants have engaged in the interview process which may impact how certain questions are answered.

As someone who has been a student and employee at several of the institutions represented within the book, and who is a researcher in higher education, it is also clear that the views from those at the top in terms of culture, strategy, and a focus on learning and research are also sometimes only as valuable as the concept of trickle-down economics to those at the opposite end of the university hierarchy. This is not a criticism but an opportunity for further research. Long after directives and policies have been designed and sent out from executive leadership teams, they are passed through poor funding, multiple layers of management and leadership, untenable workloads, employment concerns, and systems that often see students becoming customers. At the end of this process, we are left with academics who hear that things are changing, but only experience a system that was difficult pre-COVID, and only became even more toxic post-pandemic.   

No aspect of this book will foster sympathy for university leaders. In a sector strongly tied to precarious employment, poor mental health, overwork, and exploitation, leaders on million-dollar salaries will never gain compassion from their employees who earn a fraction of their leaders’ salaries. What The New Leadership Agenda provides is an opportunity for those interested in higher education administration to learn about the complexities of leadership and what it looks like to tackle the issues confronting a sector plagued by underfunding, that has been forced to turn to corporate models of management, and, subsequently, is increasingly shaped by further cost-cutting measures and increased competition. Readers may find some of these issues confronting in terms of what choices executive managers must make, but Betts has provided a succinct and detailed overview of what university leadership looks like in the twenty-first century.

Martin Betts, 2022, The New Leadership Agenda: Pandemic Perspectives from Global Universities, Routledge.

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