Behind the wheel: steering universities through transformation

Article written by Josep Maria Garrell, Ramon Llull University | Thomas Estermann, European University Association

In Europe, there is little provision of leadership development schemes in higher education. Given the pace and intensity of transformations in our societies and invariably in our universities, institutional leadership is a game-changer, even more so during the Covid-19 pandemic. The EU-funded NEWLEAD project focuses on enhancing the capacity of higher education institutions and their leaders to steer change and tackle the complex topics on the institutional transformation agenda.

Today more than ever, universities are expected to fulfill multiple and increasingly challenging roles. This is understandably so, given the changing circumstances and needs of our communities that range from labour market requirements and sustainability pressures to imminent public health concerns – to name but a few. In this fast-paced and unstable context, university leaders have to walk a tightrope. This is even more so in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has been a serious testing board for the leadership skills of the executive teams at universities around the world. For the higher education community, an early lesson from this pandemic has been the importance of effective communication and decision-making by the institutional leadership, at a time when learning and teaching moved almost totally online.  University leaders had to mitigate the impact of the pandemic in the best possible ways, from boosting investment in IT equipment and ensuring access to online technologies for an inclusive student participation, to helping local communities, while managing the financial sustainability of the institution.

Although managing the Covid-19 pandemic has certainly been a challenge, it is also an opportunity; it has shed tremendous light on the need for building capacity for university leaders to address rapid change and institutional transformation in a continuously evolving context. Leading a higher education institution is like driving a car: Sitting behind the steering wheel, one needs to look further than just a few meters ahead. In fact, this requires a complex set of attributes, such as excellent interpersonal skills, the ability to inspire a shared vision across the entire institution, as well as resilience and the capacity to make informed, data-driven decisions, to name but a few. In addition to these transversal skills, institutional transformation also requires a reflexive approach towards topics such as knowledge and team management, project management and governance.

Although mentoring may exist in several forms across higher education institutions, in Europe there has been relatively little provision of leadership development schemes at the level of institutional leaders and senior managers. This is, however, much needed as university leaders must continue their development to best respond to the evolving challenges of universities of the future.

This is the reason Ramon Llull University and EUA, along with CRUE, ESCP Business School, CRASP, VLIR and the University of Iceland are now launching the EU-funded NEWLEAD (“Innovative Leadership and Change Management in Higher Education”) project. This initiative aims to enhance the capacity of higher education institutions, their leaders and senior managers – in their countries and more broadly in Europe – to steer change and tackle the complex topics on the institutional transformation agenda. Within the project, a broad range of change areas and challenges to higher education and the related role of leadership will be tackled, including general change and crisis management, but also social inclusion and equity, gender equality, partnerships between higher education institutions and different actors.

We designed NEWLEAD based on a peer-learning approach that will facilitate an exchange of ideas, reflections, and practice among emerging and established university leaders from across Europe. The project will undertake a mapping of institutional and system-level approaches to leadership development and institutional transformation in Europe, and will organise, among other things, focus groups for university leadership to test a methodology for leadership development and institutional transformation.

In preparation for the post-pandemic era, university leadership will certainly play a central role in steering a new vision for their institutions, but also in seizing opportunities to assist with the post Covid-19 recovery. The NEWLEAD project will work towards capacity building for leaders, which will be a key enabler to support such post-pandemic institutional adaptation and transformation. So that we can all look further ahead, steer change in our universities for the benefit of our communities and students.

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