How are universities creating the leaders they need?

Strong leadership and management have never been more important in higher education. The pace of global change is extremely fast, new technologies are transforming higher education and geopolitics is placing major challenges on institutional developments. Worldwide, there is a growing thirst for access to higher education, the prospect of better employment and personal outcomes in knowledge-based societies.

All this is taking place in an increasingly competitive and financially constrained higher education sector. New types of private, non-traditional and online providers are increasing their offer, opening access to wider learner cohorts.

Individual leaders and managers are under significant pressure to deliver innovative higher education that is more responsive to societal needs, steering globally-active and at the same time locally-engaged institutions, highly connected to their environment.

National and supranational governments, policy-makers and regulatory bodies are demanding that publicly-funded institutions deliver impactful, relevant and cutting-edge education and research for the knowledge society.

The European Union (EU) is clear in encouraging universities to modernise in this way. The 2017 European Commission Communication on a renewed EU agenda for higher education aims at “ensuring [that] higher education institutions contribute to innovation” and at “supporting effective and efficient higher education systems”.

“The ability of higher education institutions and systems to deliver what Europe needs relies on adequate human and financial resources, incentives and rewards efficiently deployed”, with governments playing “a crucial role in setting incentives, objectives and quality standards for the higher education system as a whole”, the communication says.

More connected and more accountable

Yet the nature of the relationship between the state and universities impacts on their ability to develop their full potential, due to constraints related to organisational and financial autonomy, leadership, human resource management and the overall academic enterprise.

Pressures also come from society and from university boards, whose growing proportion of external representatives demand different strategic directions and better connections with the economic world and society as a whole.

In addition, national and international quality assurance, accreditations and rankings all aim to make higher education institutions more accountable and to provide stakeholders with more transparency to make better informed choices.

The landscape today has become extremely complex, with many demands, constituencies and conflicting opinions about the purpose of education. University rankings are one of these influencing voices – no longer simply about enhancing student choice, but increasingly about geopolitical positioning for universities and nations.

With higher education being under such pressure and redefined in so many ways, universities need to rely on multi-faceted leaders to meet the diverse challenges of a changing sector.

Nurturing leaders and managers in academia

So how are universities creating the leaders they need? Many are introducing trainee and talent management programmes as a systematic approach to developing new leaders and managers and creating a cadre of people who are committed to the organisation. Such trainee programmes traditionally consist of a range of placements across the institution together with mentoring and-or professional development.

In turbulent times, we argue that such programmes organised internally may not always be sufficient to develop the current and new generation of global university leaders and managers, as they often lack an outside perspective.

However, there are some trainee programmes that do include such perspectives, such as the 18-month Ambitious Futures Graduate Programme for University Leadership, currently offered by 13 higher education institutions in the United Kingdom. It includes a six-month placement at another institution. All trainees also carry out the eLAMP (Emerging Leaders and Managers Program) leadership programme initially developed by the LH Martin Institute of the University of Melbourne in Australia.

To cite another example, trainees at the Goethe University Frankfurt in Germany can spend six months at a national or international partner university.

International open enrolment leadership and development programmes that take leaders and managers outside their organisations have a significant added-value, confronting them with a range of views from peers who operate in different national and institutional contexts.

The need for management training is directly linked to the degree of institutional autonomy enjoyed by higher education institutions, as was highlighted by Attila Pausits, head of the Centre for Educational Management and Higher Education Development at Danube University Krems in Austria, and Ada Pellert, rector of the University of Hagen in Germany, in 2009, and Nadine Burquel in 2012.

This may explain why higher education management programmes have a longer tradition in the UK. The European University Association’s 2016 University Autonomy Tool compares the degrees of autonomy of higher education institutions throughout Europe.

In France, the law for university autonomy, or LRU, was passed rather late – in 2007 – and the degree of autonomy is the lowest on average in Europe. Hardly any higher education management programmes exist in France, while comparatively more are found in the UK where universities have the highest autonomy in Europe and also receive the lowest proportion of funding from public sources compared with the rest of Europe.

Reduced autonomy may limit the capacity of universities to freely shape their leadership, organisational design and professional services. However, both rankings and accreditations as well as an increased demand for accountability from stakeholders may prove useful. International accreditations may in some cases also require a higher degree of professionalisation than national accreditations.

The EQUIS (EFMD Quality Improvement System) accreditation standards, specifically designed for business schools, include an entire chapter on resources and administration, explicitly requiring “sufficient high quality administrative staff and processes to support the school’s range of activities”.

Regarding governance, the EQUIS standards demand that “the school should have an effective and integrated organisation for the management of its activities based on appropriate processes, with a significant degree of control over its own destiny”. In addition to the fact that all EQUIS standards address internationalisation, an entire chapter covers this subject.

Some rankings also indirectly require a certain degree of professionalisation as they evaluate criteria that are not historically included in university administrations such as alumni issues, student professional and personal development, corporate relations or internationalisation.

Gaps in training

In 2011, in the framework of a European Union-funded project, a survey was carried out into the needs and provision of training for leaders and managers in higher education. Important gaps were observed between needs and provision. Training programmes were divided into degree and non-degree programmes, with a national or an international focus, and provided either by higher education institutions, networks or other bodies.

While the information on higher education management programmes was limited to the 34 programmes and providers that completed the provision survey, the overall picture has not changed much since 2011.

Degree programmes are still mostly provided by individual higher education institutions with masters level programmes having a stronger international focus, whereas professional development programmes offered by national higher education organisations have a national focus. Yet the portfolio of non-degree professional development programmes offered by international networks and professional associations is growing.

Their purpose is generally the improvement of executive and leadership skills of specific professional groups in universities, while at the same time updating participants about relevant and current sector trends and providing global professional networking opportunities with peers. They offer knowledge sharing, new organisational frameworks and leadership skills acquisition, often working with case studies and building on participants’ own experiences.

One example is the EFMD-HUMANE (European Foundation for Management Development – Heads of University Management and Administration Network in Europe) international one-week schools for senior managers started in 2003.

They include a winter school focusing on internationalisation strategies and the impact on professional services; a summer school on the transformation of professional services and new operating models to support growth; and a school focusing on Europe-Asia Pacific strategic partnerships.

The three schools focus on personal growth, leadership skills and the big picture of management, without being system-specific and hence offer the opportunity for participants to be challenged at an intercultural level, to focus on global trends and to network at an international level. The critical appraisal of strategy, of different strategic options to adopt to fit different contexts and institutional strategic profiles lies at the core of the approach. To date, these schools boast some 500 alumni.

Due to the challenges facing today’s universities, the need for international open enrolment leadership and management programmes will further increase. The critical success for these programmes is to produce the game changers needed in the sector for the profound transformations facing today’s higher education institutions.

Nadine Burquel is an international higher education expert and is director of business school services at EFMD. Anja Busch is international accreditations officer at EM Strasbourg Business School, University of Strasbourg, France.