Perspectives on Leadership in Global Higher Education

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Reposted with permission from the Advance HE blog, 16/12/2021


Over the past two months, as part of our scoping study for the Advance HE Leadership Survey, we have run 11 two-hour online roundtables on the nature and purpose(s) of leadership in contemporary higher education (HE). More than 100 individuals have contributed, representing the views of early career academics, established academics and professors, professional service directors and managers, senior executives, staff and organisational development practitioners, various representative associations, and HE support and funding bodies. While many contributors have been UK-based we have purposely engaged members of an international HE community and captured perspectives from multiple country settings including Australia, Bahamas, Bahrain, Egypt, Greece, Hong Kong, India, Jamaica, New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland, Ukraine and the United Arab Emirates.

Together these conversations have provided rich and revealing insights into a turbulent and changing HE environment. It has been humbling to hear the scale of the challenges faced by HE staff at all levels and colleagues across the HE community, and equally inspiring to witness their commitment to the social value and societal benefit of higher education. The roundtables have been emotional, cathartic and energizing – a moment for reflection within ever more crowded diaries, and an opportunity to listen and to be heard by peers with compassion and empathy.

Unsurprisingly the COVID-19 pandemic has provided a backdrop to much of the conversation and has amplified many long-standing concerns. Issues of funding, workload, diversity and inclusion, sustainability, government policy, marketisation and the growth of hybrid and digital working are key priorities and concerns impacting global HE. Such concerns, however, are not easily resolved and their complex interdependencies highlight the difficulties of successfully navigating this shifting and uncertain terrain.

Within each roundtable we spent time exploring how values and purpose shape leadership in HE and, whilst participants articulated a strong set of ethical principles, they acknowledged that these are not always recognised and rewarded within an increasingly competitive and target-driven sector. Many of the discussions evoked a sense of existential crisis and the need for a much stronger sector-wide debate about the purpose and contribution of HE in a changing world. Torn between the demands and expectations of a range of powerful stakeholders there was a sense that some institutions, and their leaders, may potentially be losing sight of what really matters.

We concluded each roundtable by collating thoughts on the skills, competencies and behaviours required of HE leaders now and into the future. Common themes that emerged included courage, compassion, authenticity, agility, resilience, communication, decisiveness and the ability to build and sustain trust. Whilst many of the points referred to leaders in formal positions there was recognition of the need to develop and nurture collective or shared leadership at all levels.

As we work through the transcripts we are reminded of the pressing need for critical discussion about HE leadership during a time of global challenges and look forward to sharing emerging findings at the dissemination and engagement events in February 2022.

Authors: Richard Bolden, Professor of Leadership and Management, UWE, Bristol; Richard Watermeyer, Professor of Education, University of Bristol; Doug Parkin, Principal Adviser for Leadership and Management, Advance HE; and Katy Outhart, Membership Services Executive, Advance HE

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