Management skills in academia

Published: 22 November 2013

As the competitive environment for Higher Education changes, the demand for high calibre individuals at a Head of School level is increasing.  Even within the highest performing institutions, the strategic outlook is on better performance from a research and teaching perspective and senior academics are viewed as being the key to delivering it. 

This brings about a question of balance; Clearly academic prowess is a big consideration, however there is also a need for real management expertise.  This blog examines some of the opportunities and challenges within this premise.

  • With the REF looming large, research is the topic on everyone’s lips.  Therefore it is beyond doubt that up and coming Heads of School will need a strong personal track record in research.  If the School in question is already performing well then the emphasis needs to be on their credibility to manage and motivate a burgeoning academic cohort.  If there is room for growth on the research front then it will lie in track record of developing this element; Both in terms of building research enthusiasm amongst existing staff and attracting talent into the school. 
  • Research performance is of course closely linked to the development of successful partnerships, with regard to research grants and broader academic peer work.  The increasingly competitive landscape means that identifying and developing relationships with other institutions is getting harder, but it should not be impossible.  To this effect, the question is about the ability of the Head of School to network and indeed to be a credible ambassador for the School in question.  It is also about having the commercial nous to recognise opportunities and appropriately pursue them.   
  • Student satisfaction is of particular interest in contemporary HE.  The ability of Universities to attract the brightest and ensure that they remain studying is a key part of guaranteeing income.  Subject choice and curriculum demand are moveable feasts.  It will often be up to Head of School to anticipate expectations from pre and post-graduate audiences.  The notion of the “customer” is a growing trend, as is “employability” which can often be in conflict with research objectives.  Dependent upon subject area, accreditation, work based experience and life-style learning via mediums such as Moocs are all opportunities that the Head of School will need to deal with.  Good decision making and the ability to balance competing demands is therefore critical. 
  • The physical environment is integral to this too.  Whilst there are some significant capital projects being delivered within the sector, there are also a lot of Universities that are having to ‘make do and mend’ with traditional style buildings that might not necessarily act as a “touch and feel prospectus” for the School.  Although access to buildings and the aesthetics of interior design might not appear to be high up the list of strategic considerations for a Head of School, they do have an effect upon the morale of staff and indeed student choices.  Ignore them at your peril!
  • Naturally all of this has a cost implication.  Even with the economy picking up, these are tight times within HE and the ability of the Head of School to manage the purse strings is vital.  Whilst nobody would expect posts such as these to be held by financial geniuses, an eye for efficiency and ability to understand what is coming in and out is key.

Elizabeth James is a Consultant in the Education Practice at Berwick Partners

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