by Jane Creaton and Claire Gordon
This blog post draws on research conducted as part of an ongoing study of the role of heads of department (HoDs) in universities in the UK. In particular, we are interested in the key factors influencing how the role of HoD is experienced and enacted, including disciplinary contexts, institutional structures and type of university. The project is concerned with the extent to which current leadership and management programmes provide adequate preparation and support for the role, which may be particularly vulnerable to work-related stress. It is also concerned with the creative and critical leadership responses that HoDs are adopting in response to the present changing and uncertain higher education environment. Our findings are based on a sector-wide survey and 18 in-depth interviews conducted in 2019, but are also informed by two earlier research projects that explored the role of HoD in teaching-focussed and research-intensive universities (Creaton and Heard-Laureote, 2019).
Uncertainty, change and lack of preparation: becoming a HoD
It is a particularly challenging time to become a HoD in UK higher education. In the external environment, HoDs have to grapple with growing sectoral-level demands and new forms of accountability – while the REF has been in place in one form or another since 1986, TEF, APP and KEF have brought new demands and targets. These are compounded by huge financial uncertainty given the possibility of a change to fee structures following the Augar review and continuing uncertainty over Brexit. The latter is likely to have consequences in future for: the presence of European staff and students at UK universities; the possibilities for student mobility under Erasmus+; and European research funding. Within institutions, HoDs spoke of experiencing continuous restructuring and centralising, an exponential rise in demands from above and below, limited institutional power and authority compared to the past, and tensions between their academic and managerial identities. It is also worth noting that markers of esteem (Kandiko-Howson and Coate, 2015) – prior to taking on the headship – had been based on academic success indicators which do not translate easily into necessary skill-sets and areas of expertise required for the role. Some HoDs had received no preparation or training for the role and there was considerable variation in what had been received. One HoD took part in an innovative co-created developmental programme with other new HoDs, some participated in generic leadership programmes (which were generally considered to be ill-suited to the specific HE context), and others in formal or informal coaching and mentoring arrangements.
Wellbeing and work-related stress: the lived experience of being a HoD
The importance of staff and student mental health and wellbeing has been a high profile issue in the HE sector over the past few years. Reports from Universities UK, Healthy Universities, Wellcome Trust, and HEPI have indicated high levels of depression, stress and anxiety in universities and recommended institution-wide approaches to tackle support the mental health of their students and staff. In response, many institutions have developed mental health and wellbeing strategies. However, for many HoDs, this has simply added another layer of responsibility for staff and students within their department without addressing the issues which may affect their own mental health and wellbeing. Our interviewees identified the sheer quantity and breadth of daily demands on today’s HoDs. At the micro-level, HoDs were booking rooms, arranging chairs and chasing up Estates and at the macro-level, HoDs were contributing to high-level management committees and strategy development. And for many the most time-consuming and stressful elements of their role related to managing challenging colleagues, which took up inordinate amounts of time and energy.
The HoD job specification often seemed to include responsibility for everything that happened within the department. An expectation that the HoD is also responsible for the mental health and wellbeing of all their students and staff may locate the deficit with the HoD rather than with some of the wider structural and societal factors. While some were able to thrive in this environment, others could not help but be affected by the huge pressures they were operating under.
“There’s an emoticon on Skype for Business which is banging my head against a brick wall. … But it’s not always like that” (Interview with HoD, 2019)
Some HoDs had clearly developed effective coping strategies and support networks inside and outside their university, others spoke of loneliness and isolation including wakeful periods in the night and the constant flow of emails at every hour of the day and night.
‘The sense of shouldering the burden in the sense that it’s all consuming never goes away. You occasionally get called up in the middle of the night …’ (Interview with HoD, 2019)
What might we mean by creative and critical leadership in challenging times?
A quick Google search yields a range of approaches under the ill-defined notion of creative leadership. The fluidity of the term clearly allows rather liberal interpretation. At one end of the spectrum, we see evidence of the notion of creative leadership being co-opted as part of the discourse of the neoliberal university, providing a smokescreen for ever increasing demands on HoDs in face of the increasing metrification of higher education. A different approach to creative and critical leadership also came through in our research, where creativity lay in finding effective ways to subvert institutional expectations and norms. Some HoDs spoke of gate-keeping and others translating up and down the messages that were coming from the senior leadership as well as their departments, others made choices as to what to do and what to ignore.
‘There’s a translational bit, where I speak two languages, and then on either side they only speak one.” (Interview with HoD, 2019)
One of our HoDs highlighted their commitment to emphasising the intrinsic values of higher education and community as a counter to the ever-greater focus on metrics and accountability, with another purposefully prioritising relationship-building over emails. And finally, perhaps the most radical of all were the HoDs who insisted on prioritising self-care, modelling good work-life balance and ensuring informal support networks for themselves to enable them to flourish in their roles.
Jane Creaton is Associate Dean (Academic) for the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences and a Reader in Higher Education at the University of Portsmouth. She has been a member of the SRHE Governing Council since January 2019. Claire Gordon is Director of the LSE Eden Centre for Education Enhancement at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Creaton, J and Heard-Laureote, K (2019) ‘Rhetoric and reality in middle management: the role of heads of academic departments in UK universities’, Higher Education Policy https://doi.org/10.1057/s41307-018-00128-8
Kandiko-Howson, C and Coate, K (2015) The Prestige Economy and Mid-career Academic Women: Strategies, Choices and Motivation, Paper presented at the Society for Research into Higher Education Annual Research Conference, Newport, UK.
This is the second in a ‘virtual symposium’ series which began on with Jane Creaton’s blog on 28 February 2020: Leadership in a Changing Landscape.