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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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Leadership in a changing landscape: the role of heads of department

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. 

References

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.


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Articulating identities – the role of English language education in Indian universities

by Santosh Mahapatra

This post is part of a series tied to a special issue of Teaching in Higher Education that will be published in March 2019. The founding idea behind this special issue was to spark a re-evaluation of what higher education needs to do to respond to the post-truth world, especially from the perspective of individual educators. The twelve papers, nine of which will be accompanied by posts here on the SRHE blog, take different perspectives to explore the ways in which higher education is being challenged and the responses that it might make in terms of curriculum, pedagogy and professional practice.

This paper analyses how different kinds of identities are articulated as a part of building and opposing domination in the context of English education in Indian universities. We try to prove that the process of hegemony-making which started during the British rule in India is still shaping English education in India albeit in newer forms. It is not difficult to realise that today, English and English education have lent voice to multiple identities and knowledge systems. In this paper, we have made an attempt to evaluate and present some of the important debates and discussions related to English language education in institutes of higher education in India. We also look into how different groups are taught English and demonstrate how contexts of teaching are defining knowledge systems, imposing patterns and simultaneously, articulating resistance.

English has become the language through which Indians can imagine articulating their identities. It started as a language which was used used for translation and communication purposes in courts and British administrative offices. Later, however, it got turned into a powerful tool of subjugation and hegemonization. Research suggests that initially, the British were unsure about introducing English education. They then adopted a rather cautious approach and made it available to some selected groups of Indians. It would be appropriate to believe that during the mid-19th century, the British had the realisation that the seed of colonialism could be sowed in the education system. It changed the game in the favour of the British. A concept like ‘modernity’ received a colonial makeover and English education got inextricably associated with the term. English-education became synonymous with social mobility and is still continuing to shape social mobility in a major way.

If one analyses the position of English in the HE system, one can observe that it has been often used, misused and abused in India, a country with a multi-layered and complex social set-up. While people belonging to the lowest socioeconomic strata demanded access to more English and found progress and resistance against the upper class in higher education, another section, mainly comprising the elite, strengthened their position in higher education by availing themselves high quality English education. One can find evidence to support the claim that the field of English education in India has been highly political in nature. What acts as a balancing tool in this political game is the constant effort made by a section of the society to access opportunities and create desired identities. Therefore, instead of focusing on how English education has shaped identities in higher education, we must see the larger picture in which different sections of population have utilised English and hammered out contradictory and complementary identities that have catered to their needs, hopes and desires.

Santosh Mahapatra teaches academic English to engineering students and guides doctoral research at BITS Pilani Hyderabad Campus. His current research interests are Critical Pedagogy, Teacher Development and Classroom Assessment.

You can find the full article by Santosh Mahapatra and Sunita Mishra, ‘Articulating identities – the role of English language education in Indian universities’ in Teaching in Higher Education 24(3): 346-360 athttps://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13562517.2018.1547277


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Having faith in the university

by Søren SE Bengtsen and Ronald Barnett

A heightened gap between the university and society is now evident. On the policy level, discourses of excellence, world-classness and value-for-money press upon universities while, on the societal level, there are calls for impact, skills, employability and marketable knowledge. Additionally, in a post-truth and fake news era, universities struggle to establish their legitimacy, and some students even report that they may actually be doing themselves a disfavour by taking a higher education degree. All this is symptomatic of a wide societal, and even worldly, sudden loss of faith in the university. Continue reading

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What is a university?

by Marcia Devlin

The right to use the term ‘University’ is under examination in Australia. In the current Australian higher education sector, there are distinctions between providers that may label themselves as a ‘University’ and those who are a non-university ‘Higher Education Provider’.

Currently, the right to use the term ‘University’ is restricted Continue reading


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Metrics in higher education: technologies and subjectivities

by Roland Bloch and Catherine O’Connell

The changing shape of higher education and consequent changes in the nature of academic labour, employment conditions and career trajectories were significant Continue reading


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Learning gain expectations – the parental perspective

By Valerie Anderson

Issues of ‘learning gain’ increasingly arise from opinions and concerns about ‘value for money’ in higher education. In what some believe is an over-supplied graduate labour market, the discourse of employability also looms large as a feature of this discussion. Continue reading


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A work in progress: support for refugees on their way to German higher education

by Jana Berg

Before 2015 it can be assumed that (some) refugees had already been studying in Germany, but they were generally not addressed by specific offers. This changed after 2015, when the number of asylum applications peaked in Germany. Continue reading