GLOBAL: Building capacity for higher education growth

The growth of higher education is increasingly impacting on the organisational structures and strategic direction of universities in the developed and developing world alike. The 50% increase in student enrolments across the world over the last decade has changed the face of the university sector, with increased institutional diversity, new forms of private higher education and so on.

The literature on higher education clearly demonstrates that middle managers, often drawn from the academic community, are crucial to the processes of development and change. As Professor Ron Barnett of the Institute of Education in London puts it: "Much more than capable management, across the world universities need creative, visionary and effective leadership with a global perspective that understands the capacities of universities in promoting the public good."

Higher education is seen as the key to increasing economic competitiveness with a wide range of strategies adopted by universities to achieve expansion with internationalisation. These include leading universities establishing overseas campuses, and a slew of collaborative ventures between universities within and across countries. Yet, for any country, particularly those gaining in presence on the world stage, the focus is more towards seeking to build world-class universities.

This entrepreneurial trend at the highest levels must be underpinned by capacity building within the institution. This is done in a number of ways, through appointments to key positions of international staff, the upskilling of academic staff through sponsorship of international PhDs and support for professional services staff in taking masters qualifications such as MBAs.

As the sector grows and becomes more complex so our staff numbers grow and become more differentiated. One study by Celia Whitchurch in the journal Perspectives: Policy and Practice in Higher Education describes how the boundaries are blurring between academic territory and administration and management. "Quasi-academic territories are developing in which professional managers' activities converge and overlap with those of academic and other colleagues," she writes.

How do we ensure that the people holding these varied and crucial middle and senior leadership roles have the capacity to act in this arena such that they do not 'lag behind' change? Increasingly programmes are being developed aimed specifically at higher education professionals. One area of growth is the professional doctorate.

Once the poor relation of doctoral-level study, the professional doctorate is increasingly being seen as the preferred route to higher degree qualification for serving professionals. A good number of these are in management, with growing numbers in education, but rather fewer relate to leadership of higher education. Most are designed in two parts; the first involves the study of a number of modules including research methods as well specialist areas; the second involves a supervised research thesis.

Participants value the opportunity to interact with fellow students from around the world, indeed an international cohort is an essential part of the learning. Often the programmes are designed to be delivered in blocks so that international participants can engage on a part-time basis. This is an important consideration when releasing valuable and experienced professional staff for extended periods of study.

It was the challenge of offering a high quality, international professional doctorate to busy professionals who may not be in a position to spend extended periods in full-time study that led to the suggestion that we develop a fully online professional doctorate in higher education at the University of Liverpool. The programme aims to provide opportunities for international networks of highly qualified staff to contribute to building the capacity of institutions around the world.

Our Vice-chancellor, Sir Howard Newby says: "The culture of the academic profession has, on the whole, lagged behind the changes in the structure and organisation of higher education and learning." Universities need to use every tool they have at their disposal to develop in a challenging global environment. It will be interesting to see how the professional doctorate contributes to the institutional toolkit.

* Dr Anne Qualter is Head of Educational Development at the University of Liverpool and Head of the University's E-learning Unit.