In April 2014, the Higher Education Leadership and Management Survey (HELMs) was sent to over 7,000 individuals in the UK who had previously had some involvement with the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education. The survey was designed in collaboration with Ashridge Business School and the University of the West of England. This report is one of four that analyse the data generated by HELMs. It focuses on the qualitative data relating to respondents’perspectives on the skills and experience that are necessary to lead in higher education, on the attributes and skills that they look for in their own leaders, and their views around the challenges that lie ahead for higher education institutions Other major themes that emerged from the HELMs data set include what is expected from leadership, work–life balance, and motivating and developing staff.
In total 63 governors from UK HEIs responded to the survey and this report summarises their responses, offering a rare insight into university governors’ views about their institutions and leadership and governance more broadly. Included, also, are some comparisons between the views of governors and those of leaders within institutions on a range of issues arising from HELMs. The governors who responded were predominantly male (75%), white (87%), British (91%), and aged 51 or over (96%). They were motivated by a public service ethos, wanted to make a contribution, were proud to be contributing to higher education and thought their HEIs worked hard to deliver a positive experience for students. When governors’ views were compared with the responses of HEI staff in the main HELMs survey, the governors described the culture of their institution more positively, considered change was better managed and equality and diversity policies were more effective. HEI staff were far more likely than governors to agree that it was ‘harder for women to succeed’ in their institutions (than men).
Common challenges facing university leaders were described as financial sustainability, student recruitment and the volatile policy environment. Governors placed little, if any, emphasis on several key issues identified in recent studies of the higher education sector in the UK and internationally. For example there was little mention of ethics, the management of reputational risk, sustainable development, offshore campuses and transnational education, partnerships, or diversity-related challenges.
Governors largely felt that leadership in higher education institutions required a leadership style which reflected the distinctive culture of higher education culture and took into account the importance of concepts such as academic freedom, collegiality and scholarship. There were exceptions - some took the view that leadership skills are generic and can fit in any complex organisation – and a number of governors also felt institutions could benefit from increasing the number of leaders who have experience and expertise from other sectors.
While the sample is small, the ideas raised offer some insights into this important (and under-researched) part of the higher education community. The findings will, it is hoped, help stimulate debate and discussion across the sector about the role of governance within universities and higher education colleges.
Paper written by Professor David Greatbatch
Also in the HELMs series: