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How to turn around a university: Lessons from personal experience

  • 16 March 2023
  • By Professor Susan Lea

The Higher Education Policy Institute has published a new report by Professor Susan Lea, the former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Hull, entitled Turning Around a University: Lessons from personal experience (HEPI Debate Paper 32, attached).

Changes to the UK higher education landscape since 2010 coupled with a range of internal challenges had seen the University of Hull confront a position of considerable risk in around 2017. Yet the city of Hull and the wider region is precisely the sort of place that needs a resilient and purposeful university. The paper describes how both the academic performance and financial sustainability of the University of Hull were turned around. 

Professor Lea sets out the leadership approach required to produce sustainable change in a complex organisation. Issues covered include:

  • how to communicate the unpalatable truth;
  • how to lead with purpose to effect change;
  • how to engage meaningfully with the university community; and
  • how to deliver a programme that realises the intended benefits. 

Universities drive and deliver social change when they stay true to, or sometimes rediscover, their purpose. Financial and academic survival call for clear-headed analysis and tough decisions, but it is the values, vision and strategy of an institution and its leadership that provide the backbone of successful and sustainable change.

Professor Lea, the author of the report, said:

Universities are in the business of social change and university leadership is about delivering social change. Hull was the sort of place that desperately needed a resilient and purposeful university. So dialogue, decision, delivery was my mantra for Hull’s turnaround.

Delivering a university’s strategy requires collective ownership to propel purposeful action. Change is the constant and an opportunity to innovate, not a challenge requiring reaction. ‘Turning the tanker’ was about reimagining the University and rejecting the idea of salami-slicing to meet financial targets.

Nick Hillman, Director of HEPI, said:

Levelling up and economic growth are very hard to achieve without a thriving university sector. This fascinating report by one experienced university leader shows how institutions that face stark challenges can be turned around to ensure they meet their full potential.

The lessons from successful turnarounds are not rocket science, but they do require patience, openness and skill. Only when leaders have a clear plan, listen to people’s concerns and take staff and students with them can they ever hope to succeed.

The city of Hull and the whole of the Humber benefit enormously from the presence of a thriving University.

Notes for Editors

  1. Professor Susan Lea is a chartered psychologist and academic, who served as the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Hull from 2017 to 2022. She was previously the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic) at the University of Greenwich and has also held senior roles at King’s College London and the University of Plymouth.
  2. HEPI was established in 2002 to influence the higher education debate with evidence. It is UK-wide, independent and non-partisan, and it is funded by organisations and higher education institutions that wish to support vibrant policy discussions as well as through events.
  3. HEPI has previously published A University Turnaround: Adaptive Leadership at London Metropolitan University, 2014 to 2018 by John Raftery (HEPI Policy Note 9, October 2018). In addition, HEPI is currently running a series of blogs with the National Centre for Entrepreneurship in Education (NCEE) on university leadership – see here.

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