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Building collaborative leadership across the centre-local divide

  • 26 April 2023
  • By Professor Helen Laville

This HEPI blog was kindly authored by Professor Helen Laville, Provost at Kingston University, and is part of a series of HEPI / NCEE blogs on entrepreneurial leadership.

In my last role as a PVC Education, I instituted a series of meetings with the departments across the university. In the interests of sharing good practice, I asked one Head of School if they could share the reasons for their notable successes. ‘I consider it my responsibility as Head of School to protect my staff and programmes from the misguided interference of the university centre’ came the response. While the disarming openness with which this view was articulated was unusual, the sentiment behind it probably was not. There has always been a tension between what we might call central and local leadership, with local or divisional leadership sometimes believing that central leadership is disconnected, ill-informed, lacking an understanding or appreciation of what things are really like at the ‘chalk-face’, but nevertheless determined to push through their latest initiative, project or strategy.

The creation of a collective leadership ethos throughout the university that fosters trust and a sense of shared purpose requires an understanding of where the tensions lie in the relationship between different areas. The level of autonomy afforded to individual units and the appropriate level of central oversight and accountability needs negotiation and a shared understanding of consequences. While TEF continues to be institution- rather than subject-based, its approach requires evidence of university-level actions to identify and address below threshold outcomes for different student groups across different disciplines. These outcomes impact not just the TEF and university reputation, but have significant, potentially existential, consequences for the institution; below threshold outcomes in specific subjects are a potential breach of B3 conditions of regulations, and we have already seen OfS investigations into institutions based on outcomes in specific subject areas. This inevitably drives central university leadership to be less laissez-faire about discipline-level performance and outcomes. The well-being of the institution feels increasingly tied to the outcomes of the least-successful department. While local leadership should appreciate the need for this institutional supervision, central leadership must not interpret the TEF/conditions of registration case for central oversight as an argument for the kind of central imposition of ways and means that is oblivious to the different needs and contexts of different disciplines and that ignores the subject-informed experience and expertise of local leaders. TEF recognises the need to ensure provision follows the mix of course and students, and central leaderships should understand that pedagogies and methods ought to be different in different disciplines. We should be careful of ensuring a well-intentioned effort to ‘spread best practice’ does not become the much feared ‘one size fits all’ approach.

Beyond TEF and conditions of registration, other regulatory developments, such as the introduction of HE Data Futures, GDPR compliance assurance, degree apprenticeship monitoring and increased regulation regarding international students have created further imperatives towards centralization. The need to manage institution-wide compliance across multiple activities reporting to multiple agencies on increasingly tight budgets is being reflected in the introduction of cross-institution systems to ensure cost efficiencies and consistency of assurance. It is to the benefit of the university to have a plethora of different ways of delivering teaching which reflects disciplinary needs, but it’s not always necessary to have a plethora of ways of managing and returning the student data that is associated with that delivery. It is also highly inefficient, expensive and risky in terms of ensuring regulatory consistency. An accord between local and central leadership regarding what is pedagogically necessary and beneficial, and what can be brought into a cross-institutional structure to ensure efficient and accurate compliance, is vital to ensure we are not using resources to maintain local data management systems where there is no benefit, and indeed considerable cost and risk to so doing.  

In accommodating these regulatory drivers, university central leadership sometimes assumes everyone across the university knows why these changes are being demanded of them, why what used to be considered sufficient now requires additional steps, or why differences across the institution that used to be tolerated are suddenly problematic. The phrase ‘the university is making us…’ will inevitably insert itself into the vacuum left by the lack of an explanation. Data Futures is a good example; if leaders at the local level don’t fully understand the requirements and consequences, it’s understandable that they might interpret university action as being the result of a centralizing managerial zeal. Local leadership must be given the responsibility and the support to ensure they are not so focused on managing their own department that they fail to understand changes in the external context, and to appreciate their own role in ensuring local level accuracy of data at point of input.   

The data revolution in HE has had a significant impact on the relationship between central and local leadership in terms of responsibility for the accurate and efficient collection and returning of data, but it has had an arguably even bigger impact on the way we use the resulting metrics, dashboards and ‘flags’ within university dashboards in ways which can become the dominant interface between central and local leadership. Office for Students dashboards on institutional performance relating to TEF and conditions of registration produce number-driven visualisations of performance, offering a myriad of ways of slicing, dicing, filtering, and measuring ‘data’, with all the seductive abstracting power that such platforms have. But the closer you are to the students, and to the staff who teach and support them, the less abstract that data is. Central leadership needs to trust local leadership help us interpret their data. I once asked a Head of Department about a potential issue with a continuation statistic, and they responded by naming every student within that statistic along with a detailed account of what had happened, and all the work that colleagues had undertaken to support the students. In another meeting, what the data suggested was a problem module was the result of a difficult staffing circumstance that the Head of Department had managed as well as humanly possible. Data tells us a lot but doesn’t tell us everything. We need to make sure we are using it to start and shape conversations not to stop and shut them down. 

Finally, it is vital to remember that local leadership has the difficult task of day-to-day leadership amongst their colleagues, collaborators, and friends. Change and actions which seem straightforward enough in a university committee meeting can be difficult to enact on the corridor. The task of representing, protecting and advocating for your division, while at the same time being part of a university-wide leadership team is a difficult one, and it’s perhaps unsurprising that some department division heads prefer to ‘pick a side’. Central leadership needs to be mindful of the constant challenge that local leadership faces from all sides, and to recognise the pressures inherent in the local leadership role.

I would like to thank Ian Dunn, John Craig and Andrew Boggs for their comments and feedback.

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