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Pathways-ED: Lead on, McProf!


Stuart Middleton
29 March 2012


I gave a little speech the other day on leadership in higher education. Much of it was pretty standard stuff until I got to the bit where I wanted to talk about how successful leadership in Higher Education should be measured.

There was some enthusiasm for successful leadership to be measured along sound business lines – the management of a tight ship where income is not exceeded by expenditure where the best people are hired and inspirational leadership rockets a pretty ordinary HE institution up an international list of world class universities, a list that few can pronounce and even fewer understand – the Boys Own Dream of the Vice- Chancellor!

Then in a moment of uncharacteristic clarity it came to me, why should the quality of an HE educational leader be judged any differently from how we judge the quality of the performance of all the others who work in HE? Yes, I thought, this is the answer.

The three key metrics for judging success in education including HE should be participation, retention and successful completion, the three old hardy annuals of getting them in, keeping them there and getting them through. Yes, let the VC be judged precisely on the performance of his/her institution on those three measures.

The connection an HE leader has with their different communities, the scholarship programmes they support, the direction in which they drive programming and collaborative partnerships and the articulation agreements they seek to have with other providers are all critical to establishing pathways into HE for under-represented groups. The student demographic profile of an institution and the degree to which it responsibly reflects the wider community of an HE institution is a direct reflection on the quality of leadership at that institution.

The HE leader that ensures that the right kinds of support programmes are in place and resourced adequately, who is prepared to make retention a key strategic priority is one who is demonstrating sound leadership.

Finally there’s that question of successful completion. Oh, is it to be successful completion of courses or programmes or qualifications. Well let’s keep it simple and make it the successful completion of qualifications. That seems only fair since it is the successful completion of qualifications that is the marketing promise of HE institutions and, a little sweetener here for the VC,  the track into postgraduate qualifications.

So that was done and dusted, I had solved all the issues of summing up successful leadership in Higher Education. Then the questions flew sharply and quickly. What about research performance? What about the capital works programme? What about the civic relationships, the chummy chats with business, industry and commerce, the sector politics, the successful outcomes to industrial negotiations, keeping the Council and the Senate under some semblance of order? What about…..? What about…..? What about …….? There seems to be no end to the list of crucial success factors and KPIs that seem not to be about participation, retention and successful outcomes and perhaps even leadership and much more about the normal requirements of management.

But as I headed home I wondered if that was really the case. Participation, retention and successful outcomes seemed to me to be the whole point behind virtually everything that the HE Leader did. Of course there was an issue that if these were to be the measures, they depended in very large part to be reliant on others. Those who teach and support students, maintain the facilities, prepare the laboratories and so on, are surely driven by those three goals. And if they are not, shouldn’t they be? Should not the entire institution be united in a desire to be the best institution on those three counts?

Or are our HE institutions a little more focused on other things? Things that require more complex words to describe and which inevitably become a little more elusive when we try to pin then down? That seems a pity.

Leadership has become such a complex and mysterious thing. It was bound to happen once it became a subject in higher education. Why must we shroud so much that we do in complexity when really the essential core of education in general and higher education in particular is simple. Students come into our care, we take them along a pathway and they demonstrate the knowledge, skills and understandings that allow us to give them the attestation of an academic qualification.

I got into trouble once and was lambasted in a rather polemic book written by a right-wing commentator for a quip when I was speaking about standards in education and had said that I felt the same way about standards as Gandhi had when asked about British civilization. He had replied that he thought it would be a good idea.

Leadership in higher education? Now there’s a good idea!




Published inEducation


  1. Progression (employment/higher study/income)? ie. was it worth the time, effort and cost for the student and whoever picked up the tab?

  2. Jim Doyle Jim Doyle

    There is of course a big difference between leadership and management. In theory at least you could have a well managed institution with good retention and completion statistics but very poor leadership.

    An efective leader doesn’t have to be a good manager and a good manager doesn’t have to have strong leadership qualities.

    So, does leadership matter? Oh yes. The effective leader is more likely to have a well performing team around him/her and the weak or bad leader is lethal to any organisation.

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