Leadership research in HE is ‘theoretically weak’

Literature on leadership development needs much improvement considering the sector’s importance to the UK economy, says report

April 30, 2016
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Current literature on how to improve university leadership is “small-scale, fragmented and often theoretically weak”, a study has concluded.

In a damning assessment of research undertaken on higher education leadership development, a Leadership Foundation for Higher Education report concludes that there are few useful studies to illustrate how well UK universities are doing at training and supporting the next generation of university leaders.

Most of the studies are self-evaluations of small-scale projects carried out by individual institutions – a situation that raises “questions about the objectivity of reported outcomes”, says the report, titled The Impact of Leadership and Leadership Development: A Review of the Literature and Evidence, which was led by Sue Dopson, from the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School and published on 27 April.

The report, which identified 41 pieces of relevant research on leadership development, also bemoans the lack of any longitudinal studies tracking the impact of leadership training over the course of several years.

“Given the importance of leadership development in the UK higher education sector and the amount of resource spent on it by higher education institutions as programme commissioners, the number of promising UK-based leadership interventions that we found to have a reliable evidence base and/or be theoretically well informed, is low,” says the report.

“A lot of the research is very weak,” said Ewan Ferlie, professor of public services management at King’s College London and one of the report’s co-authors, who characterised existing research as “very small-scale, local and atheoretical”.

“It might be two managers writing up an individual intervention they made at their university,” said Professor Ferlie, who compared this approach with larger multi-institutional research found in the US.

Echoing the report’s call for a “scaled-up and nationally significant research programme”, Professor Ferlie said that he would like to see researchers examine how leadership training had made an impact on higher education institutions, particularly those going through significant change.

“You could track the case of a university going through major change and see how leadership factors compared to other factors at play,” he said.

With higher education institutions soon likely to face tougher financial and regulatory challenges, as well as greater competition for students, focusing on good leadership practice could benefit the sector, Professor Ferlie added.

“The sector needs a leadership that is more adept at managing these changes effectively,” he said.


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