Mindfulness: right here, right now – the leader’s dilemma

In advance of the Leadership Foundation’s events on the Art of Being Brilliant at Work, and Mindfulness in Higher Education, programme director, Doug Parkin shares his thoughts on mindfulness as the leader’s dilemma. 

Right here, right now is in a very real sense the only moment that really matters.  If we can’t be happy in this moment, then what reason have we to expect that we might be happy in any other?  The past is gone and the future is yet to happen.  The past is a complex web of interactions and events, always open to interpretation that we may cherish, value or regret.  The future is nothing more than a tableau of personal, social and cultural expectations, some fixed firmly through either certainty or routine, others more loosely cast as speculation, anxious uncertainty or, perhaps, the stuff of dreams. The present, though, is now.  It is the breath we breathe in this moment and no other.

So, what has this to do with leadership?  Well, everything.  It could almost be described as the leader’s dilemma, in fact.  The word leadership, in its Anglo-Saxon origins is about ‘the road or path ahead’.  Transformational leadership is about vision, direction and the challenge of aligning the energies of a diverse range of more or less connected people behind an attractive goal. Driven by what, though? Well, a combination of events that have occurred in the past, near or far, and our best guess about what may happen in the environment around us in a range of future scenarios. We are both pushed by the past and pulled by the future, and leaders find themselves bouncing between the two as they react to one and try to be proactive about the other.  That’s the dilemma!

Now, we are often told that ‘if we fail to plan we plan to fail’. A neat statement that it is very easy to nod your head at and which contains one kind of truth. Within most organisational endeavours it is certainly helpful to plan and prepare, and in terms of shaping the future and having a vision another leadership maxim tells us that ‘if we don’t know where we’re going, then any path will do’. And all of this leads us towards the ‘doing’ trap – the busy business of doing – and we neglect the fundamental importance of ‘being’.  Taking that vitally important reflective breath and being present.  After all, this is the moment that everything before it, quite literally, was building towards. And if we go on postponing it, waiting for another better moment that our wonderful planning and change management may yield, then we become like a child chasing a reflection.

To some extent we are programmed to regard the future as a brighter place than today.  “Sniffing a wonderful carroty horizon,” as Andy Cope puts it, propels us to struggle, survive and evolve.  Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, suggests that these positive illusion, as psychologists call them, make us as “part-time residents of tomorrow”.  However, this forward looking energy, whether driven by fear or optimism, can rob us of our ability to appreciate the here and now.  And the tragedy of this is that it is only in the ‘here and now’ that happiness can be found, and then only if we stop and look for it.  Linked to this, in organisations there is definitely something concerning about the current vogue for futurism and future gazing that, as well as being almost doomed by the same uncertainty on which it thrives, draws us increasingly away from truly valuing our engagement with the present.  After all, engaging with the present is the most profound engagement there is.

So, is it possible for a leader to model ‘being’ as well as ‘doing’?  To value the wonders of the current moment, who we are, where we are and how we are, as much as the agenda we are trying to progress?  If so, such an approach could be seen as embodying values that directly and positively impact the lived experience of colleagues and their wellbeing.  The mindful present, when brought into focus, is refreshing, restorative and relaxing for busy minds.

There is undeniably a strong link between organisational leadership and wellbeing.  Studies by Daniel Goleman and others show that, for example, unrelenting, pacesetting leadership can result in colleagues feeling overwhelmed by the demands, disempowered, micromanaged and mentally fatigued.  Okay, perhaps, with another pacesetter with a similarly single-minded drive to succeed and exceed expectations on every front, but for the overall work climate a potentially destructive approach if it is not combined with a wide range of more collaborative and affiliative leadership styles.  And yet, some may argue, isn’t that the nature of the modern workplace?  Isn’t it more driven, more competitive, and more focussed on targets, outcomes and impact than ever before?  This may be true, although it seems the prerogative of every work generation to claim that it is living through an age of ‘unprecedented change’.  And even if is true that ‘in the modern workplace’ we need to set the pace and work smarter with less, would that not make it even more important for leaders to support the health and wellbeing of colleagues by modelling and encouraging mindfulness.  What a turnaround it would be if, for example, being in a meeting could literally include consciously ‘being’ in the meeting, even if for just a few short enlightened moments.

Mindfulness is a relatively modern term for an ancient insight: we replenish ourselves and find fresh energy and insight when we discipline ourselves to be in the current moment and to notice only the things that are happening now (sounds, images and sensations).  Meditation, contemplation and prayer have been the heartbeat of spiritual life in cultures around the world for as long we know, and in more recent times ideas to do with emotional intelligence, reflective-practice and mindful self-awareness have gained currency as ways for leaders and others to be present, to suspend judgement, to show empathy and to redirect disruptive emotions and make better choices.

The final chapter of my book, Leading Learning and Teaching in Higher Education: The Key Guide to Designing and Delivering Courses, published last year, is focussed on leading yourself.  Self-leadership is a strand that runs throughout the book linked to a set of core leadership qualities, and in this short chapter I bring together as a summary some key ideas relating to what I have termed ‘attuned leadership’ and having compassion for yourself:

“In this attuned leadership the leader looks to achieve a level of deep influence that is as much about ‘being’ as it is ‘doing’ (we are, after all, human beings, not ‘human doings’). The emotional and interpersonal environment will figure highly in the leader’s focus and priorities, and the emphasis will be on the climate of the group and liberating potential rather than giving strong direction.”

This highlights another important aspect of mindfulness for leaders, the crucial need not to let passion for the task overcome compassion for people, and this includes having compassion for yourself.  A people rather than a performance culture will be essential for mindfulness principles and practices to flourish, where the individual and the community come first and the work we do and the things we achieve are significantly better for it. And having “compassion for yourself should not be an awkward concept because if you do not sustain yourself in your leadership then it will be impossible for you to sustain others” (Ibid.).  The chapter ends with ten questions based on self-reflection and mindfulness that encourage leaders to find peace and balance in an often frantic world.  This is actually a short mindfulness activity in itself intended to be illustrative of how these principles and practices can put you back in control of your life, as a leader at any level of seniority, and thereby help others to begin to do the same.

“Mindfulness is about observation without criticism: being compassionate with yourself… In essence, mindfulness allows you to catch negative thought patterns before they tip you into a downward spiral. It begins the process of putting you back in control of your life.”
(Williams and Penman, 2011)

Doug Parkin is the programme director for a range of Leadership Foundation development programmes, and in demand for consultancy projects within universities. You can find out more about his book ‘Leading Learning and Teaching in Higher Education: The Key Guide to Designing and Delivering Courses’ by clicking here

Mindfulness in Higher Education takes place on Monday 19 June 2017 at Woburn House, London. To find out more and book, click here

Andy Cope will be facilitating our Leadership and the Art of Being Brilliant on Wednesday 28 June 2017 at the Royal College of Nursing, London. To find out more and book, click here

From Kazakhstan to Myanmar: building capacity in higher education internationally

The Leadership Foundation has led or participated in higher education development projects in more than 30 countries in Asia, Africa, North and South America, Europe and the Middle East. What have we learnt about the common challenges that have to be overcome to build capacity in the countries in which we work?

Andy Shenstone, the Leadership Foundation’s director of consultancy, shares his experience of co-designing solutions to wicked issues in higher education systems around the world.

The Leadership Foundation’s international work takes place within a vibrant higher education environment and contributes explicitly to multiple UK higher education sector-wide objectives. These objectives include those of the UUKi, which aim to create opportunities for UK Higher Education Institutions to establish new relationships with overseas providers and the promotion of UK higher education internationally. It also addresses the governments expressed priority as regards to enhancing the international standing of UK higher education. Finally, the Leadership Foundation is committed to supporting the development of more robust and autonomous higher education systems in overseas nations including contributing to the wider UK government agenda of supporting capacity-building as a key plank of overseas development through the Newton fund and other programmes.

Each country we’ve worked with has had very different characteristics – which is perhaps not surprising if you consider that we’ve worked in countries as diverse as Kazakhstan, Myanmar and Egypt. Yet, there are still some fundamental similarities in the challenges these countries face, and how we work together to overcome them.

The first challenge is that, generally, higher education provision is underdeveloped. Typically, it has been managed through command and control mechanisms, through government diktat and tight management. That manifests in ways that those of us familiar with the UK system would find very difficult to comprehend. For example, in Egypt, principals or vice-chancellors have virtually no discretion over who to appoint and certainly no capacity or capability to let anyone go or dismiss staff for poor performance. In Myanmar, any significant leader in an institution is forcibly rotated to anywhere in the country every three years, with no choice over where they are sent, regardless of their seniority. In the Ukraine, the direction of travel is moving away from a Soviet-era command and control model to one which is more reminiscent of western and UK models of institutional autonomy but, of course, it will take quite a significant time to make that journey.

Leadership capability
Generally speaking, we find that our clients in overseas countries want to enhance the leadership and management capability of university leadership. Allied to that, there is a keen interest in establishing resilient and sustainable processes for identifying and supporting a pipeline of future leaders – succession planning. Inevitably, if you are the leader of a university and have achieved that position of seniority by dint of your approach under the existing model of governance and politics, that may well mean that you are, perhaps, ill-equipped to be an effective leader in the future when the political and social environment is going to change, potentially quite significantly. That places particular demands on you to develop your skills and capabilities. That isn’t to say such change isn’t possible, but it can be demanding and, of course, longer term, simply focusing on those who are in roles already misses the point. That is, to build capacity to bring forward future leaders who have the skills, capabilities, attitudes and insights that their countries need to develop and modernise their higher education systems. That’s what we’re in the business of doing.

Legislative framework
Another key challenge in global higher education, for a number of countries, is that while they aspire to modernise higher education leadership, governance, and management, the legislative framework (which establishes the boundaries of what is or is not possible under the terms of the law) often takes quite a long time to change. So while there’s a need to develop individuals and direct the travel of leadership in a way which may well speak to an agenda of greater institutional autonomy – and support institutional leaders to develop their own strategies – they have to feel that they’ve got permission to do that. They’ve got to feel safe to do that. They’ve got to feel that the system at large is providing them with the framework within which they can operate.

Take Myanmar. Up until very recently if you said or did the ‘wrong thing’, the impact on you personally could be very significant. That included speaking out and having any ideas of your own that were not acceptable to the military junta that ruled the country for over 40 years. It therefore takes a significant amount of bravery to start behaving outside the norms of those practices. Individuals, naturally, will be very cautious. Having some confidence in the integrity of a redesigned legal framework, which empowers them to behave differently but is also respected by the government and powers that be, is crucial. One of the challenges we face is ensuring that the ambition of change is aligned with those national structures and legal systems, because if they don’t develop hand in hand, you end up with major tensions arising and a real risk of disconnect.

The other key challenge facing global higher education is finance – how it is all paid for. Budgets are under significant pressure. Where you have challenges around education provision in developing, or even middle income, countries, primary care and schooling are often prioritised and higher education can sometimes be lower down the pecking order. Which means, in turn, that it can be difficult to recruit and retain talented people, who may well be attracted to work in other industries or find it much more economically and personally attractive to leave to work in other countries.

At the Leadership Foundation we know a lot about working overseas, borne out of our applied experience in many different countries and geopolitical contexts. Fundamental to our work is a deep appreciation of the importance of us coming to understand the context in which any particular intervention or support might be provided. Critically, this concerns the degree of maturity and capability of the existing higher education sector and the outcomes that are sought.

Our international work is intended to deliver on three levels; firstly, create partnership opportunities for our UK member institutions as a direct product of service design and co-delivery. Secondly, to assist in the internationalisation of our programmes (and through this provide exposure for members on domestic programmes to international practice). And finally, be expressly valued by members and key external stakeholders (e.g. UUKi, BIS and the British Council) as a contribution to the status, reputation and reach of UK higher educations.

Underlining it all is our listening and co-design approach to working with other countries, which means that we are not only be incredibly sensitive and mindful of an individual nation’s needs and context, but we will offer ideas and solutions borne out of that experience that will assist them to achieve their goals.

Embedding capacity building
We typically look to develop solutions which embed capacity building within the national context|: training the trainers and enhancing the capacity of the workforce with whom we’re dealing to take forward the work that we are doing with them. We do not support, condone, create or facilitate a culture of undue dependence.

And, important in all the work we do overseas is to deeply respect, understand and appreciate other countries’ accomplishments. Ours is not a deficit model but a model of adding value by bringing in a genuinely international experience to support colleagues in these countries to tackle the quite wicked issues they are trying to resolve.

The Leadership Foundation has recently launched a global services brochure, which details all of the services we offer as well as examples of their impact. To download your copy of the brochure please click here.

Alison Johns, chief executive of the Leadership Foundation will chairing a session ‘Future scoping for higher education leadership’ at Going Global 2017 on Tuesday 23 May 2017. Andy Shenstone, director of consultancy and business development will also be attending, if you would like to arrange a meeting please email andy.shenstone@lfhe.ac.uk.

For more information on the global works of the Leadership Foundation, please visit the website: www.lfhe.ac.uk/international

Local and Global?

Kim Ansell considers international ambition and civic engagement examining how you can do both and how they can complement each other.

For me it is all about strategy and not the rhetoric of growth/income without knowing why.

  • China’s Generation Y is 250-million strong – a quarter of Chinese A-level students could not find a domestic university place last year.
  • There are now about 8,000+ courses taught in English by universities in non-English speaking countries.
  • The education and skills sector in the GCC (in the Arab Gulf states) is expected to see investment of $150 billion over the next few years due to population growth.
  • The British Council is offering grants of £100-£100,000, for capacity building and community engagement programmes e.g., academic exchange, round tables, online platforms, community dialogue.

Given these statistics the rationale for international development is clearly understood, but many have found the risks are high. Universities with limited resource and global ambitions have found themselves engaged in unproductive, uneconomic or diversionary international initiatives.

Current plans for UK universities suggests a growth in student numbers of well over 10%, yet policy specialists forecast a plateau in numbers so there appears to be a disconnect.

Plans will and must change as your institution gains knowledge and experience, but the commitment and alignment of staff and governance behind the engagement strategy must always be clear and consistent. Along with emerging opportunities there are also sudden upheavals. The biggest impact on strategy is typically outside of your control and presents opportunities to stress test your strategic plan – BrexHEit, the forthcoming general election, the Higher Education Research Bill, REF, TEF and the Europe wide issue, ‘integration of refugees into higher education’.

In such challenging times, the local v international question has never been so important. In particular, the relationship between an international [ised] university and its ‘place’ has become a focal point for the sector.

Cardiff Business School addressed the current refugee crisis head on, not to tick boxes, not because they had to ‘be seen to be doing something’, but because “civic engagement adds value to successful delivery of your strategic ambition” explained Professor Martin Kitchener, a dean at Cardiff Business School.

Professor Kitchener continues, “We recently led a project, through our Responsible Innovation Network, helping Syrian refugees integrate into life in Wales and create opportunities to build their prospects. The project sees undergraduates, supported by Enactus UK, working with asylum seekers and refugees on issues of personal development and advancing social enterprise ideas. Many of the refugees were also enrolled on a ‘Pathway to a Profession’ course in partnership with the Welsh Refugee Council, and some now have the opportunity to study for an MSc in Business Strategy and Entrepreneurship with us.”

Through their distinctive public value strategy which has an interdisciplinary and international ethos, Cardiff Business School students develop the characteristics of ethical, thoughtful leaders equipped with the skills to promote economic and social improvements.

David Morris’s recent WONKHE article , a review of  David Goodhart’s  The Road to Somewhere he highlights the contrasting experiences, expectations and voting patterns of those mobilised by a higher education, and those who have not accessed higher education. While cautioning against “strategically” being “in two places at once”, we are encouraged to think of internationalism and local engagement as mutually compatible endeavours.

One can question whether protection of market position over community outreach determines natural priorities but it is clear that lack of integration between internationalism and local engagement is likely to result in confusion of messaging and more importantly, failure to achieve strategic impact and success.

Arguably, collaborative leadership across a range of organisations/institutions in local places has never been more important and increasingly requires local institutions to work more closely together. Operationalising these partnerships is not sufficient unless there is a clear understanding at a strategic level of the background to the drivers and why these are critical to success.

Leading Places

The Leadership Foundation has been actively involved in developing for higher education the Hefce-funded ‘Leading Places’ programme to help drive growth, re-design public services and strengthen collaboration. Built on our researchCivic Leadership and Higher Education – Where are we now?.   The key challenges emerging from the process of collaborative working from this initiative were:

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There are some great examples of local collaboration in this project, but the real test will be whether the momentum is sustained and if they deliver on strategic objectives.

Local or global?

While I agree whole heartedly with David Morris’s belief that “The urgency of now is to recapture a civic mission”, I am not convinced of his assertion that “To choose confident and unashamed internationalism as a top priority is to choose to move civic engagement down the same priorities list”.

Institutions benefit where the strategic objective is supported by an integrated and values-based strategic plan which brings local and global together and speaks to the culture and personality of the organisation. There are many initiatives to stimulate such integration, universities are internationalising their curriculum by introducing cultural, civic and global perspectives into programmes and Fiona Ross, our director of research, has raised the issue of assessing community impact in the REF. This not only addresses how civic engagement and volunteering could demonstrate impact on a local level, but also shows how it could be valued by the ‘system’ without making it regulatory or compulsory.

So do you have to choose between local and global? Some are being a little bolder and doing both. Kings College London’s recent strategic vision certainly claims to be both – “Connecting the local to the global,  … and by 2029… King’s will be regarded throughout the world as London’s leading civic university.”

Bill Rammell, vice-chancellor of University of Bedfordshire, is ambitious in his claim that civic engagement should be in our character not in our regulatory architecture. Professor William Whyte, vice-president, St Johns College, Oxford is equally bold and claims that a local ‘only’ university is not a university at all.

So if we accept that there is always a local vs. universal tension inherent in higher education how do we best leverage it to ensure that universities can do both? I’d suggest starting with some reflective questioning of your institution’s international and civic/local strategies:

  1. Is international growth essential to your organisations long term sustainability?
  2. How would international growth add value to your strategic ambition?
  3. Can you fund international investment whilst maintaining existing levels of service and value?
  4. How long can you wait for a return on investment and what form do we want it to take?
  5. Does your staff  or team have capacity and capability?
  6. Are your governance and staff ambitions aligned?
  7. How can international growth complement civic/local engagement?
  8. How well will our community and our student population interact? 

There are no right answers, but once you can articulate your own response to questions like these, you can start to think more holistically about your strategic plan and integrate your global and local initiatives. A few ‘buzz’ words might provide part of the answer – ‘joined up’, ‘integrated thinking’, ‘integrated reporting’ ‘strategic planning’, ‘collaboration’, ‘matrix management’ ‘value-based management’

The extent to which there might be an international ambition or the scope to use the international agenda to support public engagement is the tip of the iceberg. We propose a deeper more strategic approach to the interplay between local and global success. The ethical values espoused by institutions must be one of the starting points along with analysis of your strategic intentions and some deep soul searching through the sorts of questions outlined in this blog post.


For more on Knowing Our Place, go to leadership development programme ‘Knowing Our Place? – Strategic Leadership of Local Partnerships’. As this development programme aims to build on the learning from ‘Leading Places’ and address the strategy of civic engagement.

Kim Ansell is managing consultant in the Consultancy division of the Leadership Foundation.  www.lfhe.ac.uk/consultancy  

Book Review: Stefan Collini’s Speaking of Universities


David Williams the Leadership Foundation’s web editor on governance reviews Stefan Collini’s Speaking of Universities.

Stefan Collini’s latest book, Speaking of Universities (Verso, 2017), is a collection of talks, lectures and articles, delivered and written between 2013 and 2016.

Much of the book’s content has not previously been published. This said, readers familiar with Collini’s previous book, What are Universities for? (Penguin 2012), or his articles published in, for example, the London Review of Books will not be surprised with many of the arguments presented in his latest book.

A summary of some of Collini’s main arguments are set out below. Although role of governors and government bodies receives only a rare mention, their period of stewardship should take account of the accumulated intellectual heritage of the university, and the role of each generation in building on the work that went before, and on laying the foundations for the next generation. This reminds governors that during their period of stewardship they should seek to achieve an appropriate balance between the immediate and longer-term needs and positioning of the institution.

An academic working in the field of humanities, Collini’s perspective is informed by his own personal experience and observations. He questions both the growing power within higher education institutions of professional managers (previously known as administrators) and the focus of successive governments on the direct links between higher education and economic prosperity. He argues strongly that an adequate case for universities cannot simply be made on the basis of their contribution to economic prosperity. However, he accepts it is difficult to change the public discourse.

Examining the role of higher education, a fundamental tension is between intellectual, open-end, inquiry and the more immediate instrumental (economic) aims. Both academic research and the education of students should not be overly focussed on narrow economic outcomes: ultimately such a focus does not serve the needs of the state or individuals.

Collini strongly challenges the arguments put forward by government to justify the reform of higher education in England and the introduction of income-contingent loans. He believes the introduction of the latter was poorly conceived and managed, and may well end-up being more-costly to the public purse, than the system they replaced.

The rationale for the government’s actions in seeking to reform higher education is that there was something wrong with the system, and that the proposed changes will put them right. However, it is not clear what was wrong with a system that many judged to have been successful, or that the changes will lead to improvements.

Seeking to create ‘a market’ for higher education is ill-conceived, and the suggestion that the student is a ‘customer’ at the heart of the system disingenuous. Higher education is a ‘post-experience’ good, the full benefits of which cannot be known in advanced by the prospective student. Consequently, how can a student judge the value of the product they are buying? Equally, HEIs choose who they accept onto to their courses; as much as the other way around.

While acknowledging that it is important that universities provide good teaching, and that there has long been anecdotal evidence that this is always the case, Collini does not believe the introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) will improve the quality of teaching. Attempts to make judgements about quality, using quantitative indicators as proxies for quality are doomed to failure. There is every likelihood that the selected proxies (indicators) will prove to be largely irrelevant and become ends in themselves. Citing the experience of the Research Excellence Framework (REF), evidence submitted in support of their TEF assessment by institutions is likely to create the opportunity for ‘systematic boasting’.

Collini rejects the idea there is a necessarily reliable link between student satisfaction and education quality. Nor does he believe that students are necessarily in the best position to make an informed judgement. While this may be true, Collini fails to acknowledge the possibility that traditional routes for gaining the views of student about their course are not always effective and that low levels of satisfaction shown by a student survey may offer a further avenue to bring about change. To Collini, if teaching is undervalued by universities, it is a consequence of the distorting effects of the REF and of underfunding the expansion of student numbers that occurred in the 1980s and 1990s (i.e. a permanent reduction in the unit of resource). While there is some merit in both of these points, it does risk the suggestion that universities bear no responsibility for ensuring they provide consistently good teaching.

As institutions (particularly those that Collini is likely to have in mind) typically in their marketing literature and at open days heavily promote the idea of research-informed teaching: what steps should institutions be expected to take to ensure the quality of the student experience is high? This question does not receive much, if any, of Collini’s attention, leading to a risk that the reader gains the impression that research matters more, and that any research-active member of staff will automatically be an effective teacher?

At the core of an institution’s quality is its intellectual quality and creativity. The primary focus of universities should be on extending and deepening human understanding: this results in the greatest long-term benefits to society. Universities’ longer-term cultural and intellectual role needs acknowledgement alongside a focus on supporting economic growth.

Collini notes in passing that what is needed in the UK is a world-class system of higher education, rather than more world-class universities. This is a crucial point, but one which is not developed.

Collini accepts that universities cannot just criticise the proposed changes initiated by government, but must be pro-active in making their case. With this in mind, the idea of ‘publics’ is introduced. Publics are constituted by participation – even if only passively – and this is reflected in their discourse. As there is more than one public, there is no such thing as the public view of higher education. To reach and influence different publics, the form and message needs to be tailored accordingly.

From the perspective of governance, Collini asks on whose behalf do the trustees who form an institution’s governing body exercise their responsibilities: ‘who are they holding their institution in trust for.’ He suggests the need to recognise both the inter-generational nature of knowledge accumulation and the time required for a university to build its reputation. The accumulated and collective knowledge base of the higher education system reflects past, as well as current investment. Each generation through investing in higher education helps to build the base of knowledge for the next. Today’s students of higher education benefit from past investments. By implication the stewardship of trustees should recognise not just the immediate institutional needs, but the need to sustain the intellectual inheritance of the institution.

Such has been the pace of change in the higher education policy environment, not surprising some of the pieces contained in Collini’s book appear dated. That said Collini makes many valuable points, and exposes and refutes a number of key assumptions underlying current public policy. He offers a strong and powerful defensive of role of (traditional?) universities and the importance of academic staff in directing their own affairs; although acknowledges the tension between professional autonomy and public accountability. He, himself, is clearly uncomfortable with the direction of change, and recognises that a new way forward needs to be found.

Collini is at this best in pointing out what he sees as unhelpful changes in the policy environment for higher education, and their anticipated impacts. He is less helpful or clear, in offering an alternative and better way forward (assuming the movement back to an earlier era is not possible). Although he expects the system of higher education will continue to evolve in the 21st century he does not offer a view as to how the policy environment might be reconfigured to ensure this exerts a strong and positive influence on the future shape of the higher education sector.

David Williams has worked with governing bodies in higher education for the past 15 years. He manages the governance section of www.lfhe.ac.uk The Leadership Foundation provides resources and development for members of governing bodies and those working in governance throughout higher education. Visit www.lfhe.ac.uk/governance

Top 11 things those new to higher education need to know

Rita Walters, marketing and communications coordinator, Leadership Foundation shares the insights from colleagues at the Leadership Foundation on what they believe are the key messages for those new to higher education.

1. Higher education is complex
Higher education is a complex operational and regulatory environment with an assortment of constituencies, sector bodies, missions and competing agendas. It will take you time to navigate your way around it.

2. Higher education is diverse
There is no ‘one’ higher education – it’s a highly diverse and broad sector both across and within institutions. You might think that higher education is incredibly behind or incredibly ahead, depending on your role.

3. But higher education does have key core values
It is proud to produce new knowledge and intellectual capital for the public benefit AND contribute to the economy! Higher education institutions contribute £73 billion a year to the UK economy.

4. You will be expected to collaborate
Higher education is an innovative sector that succeeds through collaboration at both the micro and macro level.

5. There is freedom
There are opportunities for progression however you must be proactive. Development takes many forms and up isn’t necessarily the only direction of travel.

6. Get involved
Don’t hide behind your role. Push upwards, ask questions (and be prepared to be questioned), be nosy, offer to participate, reach out, challenge the silo, look for opportunities and value them.

7. And you need to get networked
Network across the sector and across your professional area. Given the complexity and diversity of higher education you will only ‘get it’ by getting out. Be prepared to demonstrate and be confident and credible to get people to listen.

8. Don’t forget the customer
That’s the students, parents and higher education stakeholders e.g. The newly formed Office for Students and the government.

9. Don’t underestimate government and governance
The implications and impact of government policies can be immense, and the landscape of governance is changing – getting this right is key.

10. It takes time to understand the mysteries and magic of higher education
Be ready for a bit of a culture shock but hang on in there, it’s worth it. Be open to change and don’t give up, even though it may not feel very organised or stable.

11. And accept that you will never know all the acronyms
That’s not a bad thing as we have got the full guide on higher education acronyms on our website: Click here to download your copy. If you notice an acronym is missing from the list, please contact me, E: rita.walters@lfhe.ac.uk 

Want to learn more about higher education?
If you are new to the sector and would like to understand the context you are working in, then take a look at our Higher Education Insights programme: www.lfhe.ac.uk/ihe


Fortune Befriends the Bold

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Photograph: Nationaal Archief/Flickr: Sylvia Pankhurst protesting in London in 1932.

Vijaya Nath, director of leadership development at the Leadership Foundation, reflects on the work the higher education sector has ahead of it to close the gender leadership gap.

As we come to the end of Women’s History month I and colleagues have reflected on the now established annual campaign for equality and ask what more do we need to do to make the changes still needed in 2017?

On 8 March 1977 the United Nations (UN) general assembly invited member states to make this date the UN day for women’s rights (and world peace). Fast forward to 2017, forty years on from that date we are still fighting for 50:50 recognition and economic empowerment – a goal set to be realised by 2030. The UN tasked all member states to work across all sectors to a common goal –where gender inequality no longer exists. Reflecting on how this movement can be tracked back to events from 1909 in New York to 1913 in Russia and to 8 March 1914 in London, when Sylvia Pankhurst was arrested in front of Charring Cross station on her way to speak in Trafalgar Square, I realise that this documented fight for equality has gone on for over one hundred years.

Like many, I have lived the past 40 years believing that our work and contribution as women would be recognised and given parity. I feel the frustration of another generation of girls, daughters, sisters, women, facing a world in which objects and emotions are still gendered. A world in which our gender is still seen as barriers to progression as opposed to being celebrated for the gifts it brings. In the words of Harriet Minter, writer on women in leadership, a world where ‘Speaking out is still an act of courage…’.

The glacial pace of change on women achieving equality continues to be met by marches and marching and recently to a number of symbolic and quiet protests. As I and hundreds of thousands more participated in Global marches like @Womensmarch, #BridgesNotWalls and as I think back on the recent honouring of suffragettes by the Democratic women who staged a quiet protest wearing white outfits to the newly elected President’s first formal address to congress #WomenWearWhite, I wonder how much longer we will have to march before we achieve equality? My colleagues in America ask when will a woman be the leader of ‘the free world?’

This month we saw the publication of Tom Schuller’s book that provokes a discussion focused on ‘The Paula Principle’ (converse to ‘The Peter Principle’ a term coined in the 60s to describe people rising to leadership roles – who are judged to be less than competent but who keep on rising until they are found out – many of us have witnessed this in our working life). Schuller reinforces the well-rehearsed and identified barriers to women progressing; straight discrimination on basis of gender; structural barriers such as affordability and access to child care; the lower self-belief and confidence that some women identify as barriers to progressing; women lacking ‘vertical’ networks including mentors and sponsors higher up organisations or systems. Schuller’s fifth factor that women may be exercising a ‘positive choice’ in not opting to choose leadership will be the area that prompts most discussion. The hypothesis that ‘working women tend to stick at a level below that of their full competence and qualification’ is one that requires us women to speak up whether we go for the top or not!

Throughout my career I have witnessed and have been privileged to be part of organisations where supporting women to achieve their potential has been a core value. I have seen the Royal College of Surgeons elect its first female President in its 214 year history, and we have seen the appointment of a woman as this nation’s top Police officer. Both Clare Marx and Cressida Dick have ‘shattered ceilings’. There are many other notable breakthroughs which reinforce that we can break with past traditions and create cultures in which women at all ages thrive and are able to bring the gifts that their gender brings to the culture and leadership of our organisations, institutions and the world. None, in my opinion, more valuable than the cultures in which we are educating the future generations of women and men. Universities are a way off achieving the 50:50 by the 2030 goal.  However the movement created and awareness raised through over 6000 women’s participation in our Aurora programme has produced a large ripple. These 6000 have each in turn impacted on at least a further 10 colleagues – enabling over 60,000 men and women to have conversations on making change happen and encouraging women in higher education to find their way to leadership should this be their goal. Featured in the Times Higher Education and The Guardian, the need for positive, progressive action like Aurora is a mission that we all must share, starting with these 6000.

Let us make 2017 a year in which we realise tangible outcomes from being bold.

On 8 March, International Women’s Day, colleagues and I encouraged and tried to influence wherever possible using the theme #BeBoldForChange to continue the march towards achieving equality. I hope that 8 March 2017 and Women’s History month in particular ushers in and invites boldness, risk taking and moving beyond marches. As Emily Dickinson wrote ‘Fortune befriends the bold’. Let us make 2017 a year in which we realise tangible outcomes from being bold. Please share your acts of Boldness in higher education with us by leaving comments on our blog pages and through the #LFAurora hashtag.

Vijaya Nath is the director of leadership development at the Leadership Foundation. She leads the Aurora programme, a women-only leadership development initiative created to proactively address the under-representation of women in leadership in higher education.

Dates for Aurora year 5 will be released shortly. If you would like to be the first to know please email the Aurora team, e: aurora@lfhe.ac.uk.

Turbulence, growth and wicked issues

Andy Shenstone, director of consultancy and business development at the Leadership Foundation, looks at the key trends and challenges higher education leader’s face this year, and offers some advice for executive teams looking to steer a calmer path

Setting out long-term plans in the face of sector-wide turbulence is a challenge for every executive team with which we are working and it is clear that many of the assumptions underpinning institutional strategies have to be revisited, even if they were written as recently as twelve months ago.

The complex interaction between changing government policy, the new regulatory environment (and, for Scotland, the new governance environment and student number controls), Brexit, immigration policy, REF, TEF, pensions and national demographics, to name but a few meta factors, is demanding continuous and close assessment by executive teams.

A core assumption that has underpinned many institutional strategies was an ambition for absolute ‘growth’ in student numbers. Clearly some institutions will grow on these terms, (Bristol and Coventry are two notable examples) but the headwinds that must be overcome to achieve this are significant. In both the examples cited above growth has been allied to a much broader (and bolder) reconfiguration of the institution’s strategy. Aiming for growth without making such a fundamental reappraisal has repeatedly been shown as highly unlikely to succeed.

An effective strategy needs to speak to delivering a sustainable and resilient outcome that is aligned with the institution’s educational character, culture and risk appetite. This might mean managed growth in certain areas, a rebalancing of the portfolio or a significant new venture. But absolute growth and institutional sustainability should not be conflated. For some institutions, a managed reduction in scale and breadth in provision is both a legitimate and necessary course to take and should release resources to drive up quality and improve learning outcomes (London Metropolitan’s plans for moving to a single campus is one example).

This speaks to one of the sectors ‘wicked issues’ – the fundamental resilience of an institution’s portfolio. There is now a lot more attention being given to this by executives. Yet it remains an issue of such sensitivity that it is not always addressed with the objectivity it demands and some governing bodies remain under-equipped to provide the necessary assurance on this key topic. Probing sometimes long term, systemic instances of weak performance is crucial, as is establishing clear plans for their resolution.

This highlights the importance of being clear about where you are starting from and why the status quo is unacceptable.  A historic weakness in many universities, albeit one that is being gradually overcome, has been the use of timely information to establish a shared understanding of current and projected performance.

Our experience has been that too much emphasis has been placed on making use of analysis that explains what has already happened – when it’s evidently too late to do anything about the issues being examined. Leaders need information that assists them in making sense of a complex world and the direction of travel the institution is likely to take. Higher education is now placing much greater emphasis on developing capabilities that can deliver genuine insight into projected performance – and in a world where old assumptions are dying hard, this is very much needed.

It’s one thing to define the challenges but how is the Leadership Foundation supporting institutions in dealing with them?

As a dedicated higher education specialist agency, one of our distinctive qualities is the sheer breadth and depth of experience which means we understand both the fundamentals of higher education and ‘what works’ when it comes to devising real world solutions.

Allying this experience to an understanding of institutional context is pivotal. Size is but one factor, to be put alongside mission, the balance of research and teaching, the shape (and health) of the overall portfolio and underlying resilience. Superseding everything is the distinctive educational character of the institution, which speaks to its core purpose, values and ethos.

In shaping our interaction, we focus upon the value we must add and the outcomes we must deliver. What must a successful intervention look and feel like to the university’s executive?  How will they recognise it and what form must it take? What benefits they are seeking from our involvement?  What skills and capabilities do they require of our team?

In giving any form of advice we work through a process of co-design and solution development and the support we provide takes a wide variety of forms. In the last few months this has included facilitating executive and or governing body strategic planning events, acting as an external critical friend as new strategies are being created, conducting targeted market and competitor research through to wider evaluations of institutional operating models that explore issues as fundamental as shared services, and institutional merger.

Andy Shenstone has worked in higher education for more than 19 years with a personal focus on executive teams and governing bodies and strategically critical transformation initiatives. In addition to working in the UK, Andy’s international experience includes working for, and advising governments and universities in, Egypt, Myanmar, the Gulf States, China, Malaysia and the Caribbean.

For more information on our Consultancy work, visit: www.lfhe.ac.uk/consultancy