All Aboard! Leading Change Together in UK Universities

  • Devecchi, C. (Speaker)
  • Hala Mansour (Speaker)
  • Jackie Potter (Speaker)
  • Nick Allen (Speaker)

Activity: Academic Talks or PresentationsOral presentationResearch


Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) are seen as key players in ensuring both economic growth and social cohesion as they have the double role of educating future generations and acting as transition points into adulthood, and/or employment. Although HE systems are still managed at Member State level, the EU has set up the comprehensive strategy ‘Education and Training 2020’ (EC, 2009) for improving participation to learning (the Lisbon strategy), for enhancing cooperation in education and training in HE (the Bologna process), for providing the European citizens with the right skills to live and work. Simultaneously, the challenging economic and social reality of the Union calls for a multi-faceted redefinition of the role and responsibility of the Higher Education sector to work together transnationally to adapt to and adopt new organisational models. Such profound changes, located within a developing new economic structure and the drive towards marketisation, are fast redefining the role, mission and value of conversations were used. Both focus groups and interviews gathered evidence around three key themes: change, leadership and working together. In regard to change, participants were asked to identify key national changes, first and then to focus on key changes within their institution. The institutional case was then used to gather evidence on the nature of leadership, and how academics, administration staff and management were working together effectively in responding to external and internal drivers of change. Particularly effective, and part of the evidence used in this paper, was the use of drawings to elicit how individual participants felt about change. Conclusions, Expected Outcomes or Findings Evidence from Phase 1 and Phase 2 unveils a complex, tense but also dynamic response to coping with change. In regard to change, data show that UK universities are facing a number of key changes impacting at all levels of their organisational structure. These include changes to their income streams and financial sustainability, student recruitment and experience, quality assurance, excellence in teaching and research, and evidence of social and economic impact. Above all, it is the pace of change that is putting a major strain on the sector. Therefore, conceptualising change in the singular does not provide a useful framework for understanding how changes impact on different institutional stakeholders since it cannot capture the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity of the nature of change. Regarding leadership there is an underlining conceptual tension between democratic and inclusive leadership, and transactional and managerialist leadership styles. Key to this tension is an operational mismatch between the ideal of ‘bringing all aboard’ and leaving those who are resistant to change behind. Therefore, it would be more pertinent to think in terms of leaderships, or leadership styles which can and should be applied to achieve different goals in different contexts. With regard to working together are positive examples of effective collaboration between academics and administration, but there is also much misunderstanding of each other’s changed roles and responsibilities, especially of those roles which do not fit traditional professional categories. In regard to the former, effective collaboration resides in providing spaces for dialogue, meaningful inclusion in decision-making, and joint participation in institutional projects. In regard to the latter, entrenched views and the lack of time to understand how change is impacting on stakeholder’s job and professional identity leaves room for out-of-date labelling and further entrenched positions. References References Bolden, R. et al. (2015) Developing and sustaining shared leadership in Higher Education. London: LFHE Bryman, A. (2006) Integrating quantitative and qualitative research: how is it done? Qualitative Research, 6,1, 96-113 Devecchi, C, and Petford, N. (2015) Universities in transition: Managing knowledge and developing people through the use of intellectual capital, ECER Conference, Budapest European Union (2009) Council conclusions of 12 May 2009 on a strategic framework for European cooperation in education and training (‘ET 2020’). Brussels: European Union. Available at: /PDF/?uri=CELEX:52009XG0528(01)&from=EN. Accessed 19th January 2017 Higher Education Funding for England (2017) Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). Available from /panel/, accessed 19 January 2017 Laloux, F. (2015) Reinventing Organizations. Brussels: Nelson Parker Lumby, J. (2012) What do we know about leadership in Higher Education?. London: LFHE Mansour, H.F., Heath, G. & Brannan.M. J. (2015), ‘Exploring the Role of HR Practitioners in Pursuit of Organisational Effectiveness in Higher Education Institutions’, Journal of Change Management, 15,3, 210-230 Peters, K. and Ryan, M. K. (2015) Leading Higher Education. London: LFHE Robertson, B. J. (2015) Holacracy: The Revolutionary Management System that Abolishes Hierarchy. London: Penguin Stern, N. (2016) Building on Success and Learning from Experience. An Independent Review of the Research Excellence Framework. London: BIS. Available from /ind-16-9-ref-stern-review.pdf. Accessed, 19 January 2017 Tysome, T. (2014) Leading academic talent: interviews with leaders, managers and academics. London: LFHE Whitchurch, C. (2013) Staffing Models and Institutional Flexibility. London: Leadership Foundation for Higher Educationuniversities. This is particularly the case in the UK context where major sweeping changes to the regulatory system, such as the introduction of fees (BIS, 2011), new research (Stern, 2016) and teaching accountability frameworks (HEFCE, 2017), and changes to the role and responsibility of governing bodies are impacting deeply on the structure and purpose of universities, and on the daily working lives of both academic and administration staff. Of pivotal importance in driving the organisation and cultural change is the role of leadership. However, current conceptualizations of leadership and change management lean towards New Public Management’s high level objectives and efficiency, consequently promoting a cultural shift away from universities as collegial self-leading organisations (Mansour et al, 2015; Lumby, 2012) thus, undermining a sense of participation and co-leadership especially amongst academics (Bolden et al, 2015). Alternative models for managing change across both academic and professional services, such as Whitchurch’s (2013) concept of ‘third space’, Laloux’s (2015) TEAL organisations, Robertson (2014) holacracy, or the absence of leadership, and, consequently, an innovative strategic management of intellectual capital (Devecchi and Petford, 2015), provide new ways to analyse how different HE organisational players can create new and mutually effective ways of working together across traditional professional boundaries. The contribution of this research is original and timely since it address the need to develop ‘a more systemic perspective that acknowledges the complexities and interdependencies of organisational life’ (Bolden et al, 2015: 13), including a deeper understanding of the complex ways in which formal and informal leadership practices operates at the individual and organisational levels (Tysome, 2014). In exploring how different stakeholders viewed change and leadership, the project sought to develop an understanding, through the use of change management and shared leadership theory, of the dynamics of formal and informal leadership practices and strategies by answering the following questions: What are the main values and attitudes of academics, managers, governors, senior leaders, and professional services toward change? How do each group of stakeholders view each other’s contribution to leading change? What lessons can be learnt which can have a future impact on supporting the HE workforce to develop institutional and personal leadership for and of change? Methodology, Methods, Research Instruments or Sources Used Methodology The study applied a sequential and composite 2-phase mixed method approach using focus groups, a cross-sectional survey, semi-structured interviews, and social media to ensure coverage across UK HEIs, triangulation, complementarity, development and expansion of ideas (Bryman, 2006). To ensure validity but also to enhance accountability and visibility, an advisory panel comprising representatives of the HE workforce was established. Three sampling techniques were used: purposive sampling to ensure the selection of key HE stakeholders representing the HE workforce; and snowballing to ensure coverage and participation. The use of both sampling techniques ensured representation from different HE institutions, a variety of job roles both in the academic and professional services sector, covering for key demographic features such as gender, age and qualifications. More in details: Phase 1 established the foundations for the project as it gathered sectorial data across the HE workforce through a survey. This process included: seeking the views and advice from the advisory panel, conducting initial focus groups with cross-sectional representatives of the HE workforce with the purpose of designing the survey; and developing, piloting and launching the survey. To ensure as wide a coverage as possible of all HE stakeholders, the survey was communicated to individuals through sector-wide associations and groups, such as the Universities UK, the Committee for University Chairs, British Universities Finance Directors’ Group, SEDA, HEDG, AUA, LFHE. Phase 2 provided a more in depth understanding of how change is impacting on the HE workforce and how formal and informal leadership practices enable change. This phase consisted of 5 semi-structured interviews with key national stakeholders, and 9 focus groups with selected and self-selected representatives of the HE workforce identified from the phase one survey, and the use of twitter. Focus groups were conducted across England and where face-to-face was not possible, phone and/or skype
Period25 Aug 201727 Aug 2017
Event titleECER Annual Conference
Event typeConference
LocationCopenhagen, DenmarkShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational


  • higher education
  • Leadership
  • change management
  • change theories
  • management
  • management of change