Academic Leadership thoughts

Academic Leadership in the 21st century University:
some personal views for programme leaders

Programme leaders hold a pivotal role in universities in ensuring that strategic imperatives are translated into action rather than being rhetorical ambitions. When senior mangers work closely with programme leaders, it can be a very powerful partnership that can bring about real change in universities.

 Triggers for change

  • External stimuli (for example, quality assurance processes led by for example, the UK Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) or Professional and Subject Bodies (PSBs) and national level initiatives, led by government;
  • Student demand for change, as evidenced through for example, the UK National Union of Students campaign to improve feedback and assessment in 2009-10 and responses to national student surveys (in Australia, the UK and soon, Ireland) and other forms of student evaluation that identify issues that need to be addressed;
  • Changes to management regime, wherein new senior staff are keen to demonstrate that regime change is aligned with change of approach;
  • Opportunities to change stemming from learning from projects/research which have contributed to the evidence base (for example, some of the significant outcomes from the Centres for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) initiative and multiple JISC project developments in the UK and the Australian learning and Teaching Council;
  • Changes led by passionate and enthusiastic individuals (for example, where UK National Teaching Fellows or ALTC Fellows are leading funded projects which impact at a national or international level as well as at an institutional level).

 What can programme leaders do?

  • Keep abreast of national and international developments in assessment, learning and teaching, prioritising innovations and good ideas that fir the context in which you are working;
  • Model good practice in your own teaching and assessment;
  • Liaise closely with other programme leaders to identify shared areas of understanding and issues that matter to you, and then work collectively on them;

 What can programme leaders do to maximise potential success?

  • Work hard to understanding the present and the past conditions of your own institution to avoid the icebergs of previous practice;
  • Make really good use of the committee structure of the university, and lobby members of committees before any papers you care about are presented to bring people with you;
  • Work closely with student representatives, working with them on their concerns but also helping them get to grips with the big issues of university life;
  • Be prepared to listen courteously to the doubters who tell you that what you propose won’t work and then marshal your responses carefully before you respond;
  • Keep very good records of your activities to bring about change, and set aside regular time to reflect on what has succeeded and what has failed;
  • Be really clear about the highest priorites for change (and don’t have too many of them!).

 And what doesn’t work?

  • Expecting the circulation of a document identifying what needs to happento lead to immediate action by all recipients;
  • Waiting for solutions to be found by others to problems you understand deeply;
  • Using heavy handed techniques with your programme team (very few people react positively to fiats and dictats!)

 How can advocacy and leadership bring about genuine change?

  • Use evidence-based practice and current research to convince people of the value of the changes you want to make;
  • Make sure the changes you are making align fully with the institution’s overall ambitions;
  • Don’t expect to convince everyone of your views: around 10% are likely to be supportive from the outset and 10% won’t change whatever you do, so work hardest with the remaining 80% to bring them with you;

 Further reading

Brown, S. (2011) Bringing about positive change in the higher education student experience: a case study, Quality Assurance in Education, Volume 19 No 3 pp.195-207.

Brown, S. with Denton, S. (2009) Leading the university beyond Bureaucracy in Denton, S. and Brown, S. (eds.) Beyond bureaucracy: managing the university year, London: Routledge.

Cuthbert, R. (2002) Constructive Alignment in the world of institutional management, presentation at the Imaginative Curriculum symposium, York: Higher Education Academy. accessed April 2011

Holt, D., Palmer, S. and Challis, D. (2011) Changing perspectives: Teaching and Learning Centres’ strategic contributions to academic development in Australian Higher Education, International Journal for Academic Development Vol 16 No 1 March 2011 pp.5-17.

Iszatt-White, M., Randall, D., Rouncefield, M. and Graham C.(2011) Leadership in Post-Compulsory Education London: Continuum Press.

Marshall, P. and Massy, W. (2010) ‘Managing in turbulent times’ in Forum for the Future of Higher Education, papers from the 2009 Aspen symposium, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Cambridge USA

McCafffery, P. (2004) The Higher Education Manager’s handbook: effective leadership and management in universities and colleges London: Routledge.

Newton, J. (2003) Implementing an Institution-wide Learning and Teaching Strategy: Lessons in Managing Change, Studies in Higher Education Vol 28 No 4.

Quinn, R. E. (1995) Becoming a Master Manager: a competency framework 2nd Edition, London: John Wiley and Sons.

Robertson, C., Robins, A. and Cox, R. (2009) Co-constructing an academic community ethos- challenging culture and managing change in higher education: a case study undertaken over two years, Management in Education Vol 23 Issue 1.

Scott, G. (2004) Change matters: making a difference in Higher Education, keynote given at the European Universities Association Leadership Forum in Dublin data/assets/pdf_file/0007/6892/AUQF_04_Paper_Scott.pdf (Accessed April 2011)

Watson D (2010) Epilogue in Kubler, J. and Sayers, N. Higher education Futures: Key themes and implications for leadership and management London: Learning Foundation for Higher education, Series 2, Publication 4.1.