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Use teamwork to erode the glass cliff

As the UK higher education sector battles a perfect storm, Emma Flynn stresses the importance of building strong teams around female leaders

Emma Flynn's avatar
28 Feb 2024
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On a recent trip to Dublin, I experienced two unusual events. First, the timing of my flight coincided with the arrival of Storm Isha on the Irish Channel. The severe turbulence meant I had to remain in my seat with my seatbelt on throughout the flight. It reminded me that in uncertain times, we need to put our faith in those who have more expertise in such situations and work alongside them to reach the destination.

The UK’s higher education sector is facing a perfect storm. Static home fees, rising costs and an uncertain global market have brought new challenges and exacerbated old ones. Leadership teams in universities across the UK will need to work with their university community to meet these obstacles head on. At Warwick, we’ll continue to reflect on our strategy to deliver a world-class education to our students, to undertake leading research that makes the world a better place for all, and deliver impact on a regional, national and international scale.

Scaling the glass cliff

Reflections and commitments like these require collaboration, optimism, empathy, respect and responsibility. For some UK universities, the conversation will be more challenging, with resources channelled from some areas into others. The gloomy financial clouds hanging over the sector remind me of the Glass Cliff effect – where women are promoted to high positions at times of crisis, when the chances of reaching a perfect solution are more difficult and failure is a distinct possibility.

I have seen representation at the executive level of the higher education sector change over the past two decades, with more people from traditionally under-represented groups leading institutions. Yet I also see the cycle of boom and bust across higher education, with many of these new leaders picking up the responsibility at a time when it is a perfect storm of national and international challenges.

Is this pattern random? Do more women choose to take the reins through challenging times or do circumstances force them to do so? I started my first executive-level position six months before the announcement of the first Covid-19 lockdowns. I didn’t choose to be part of a leadership team because there was a pandemic on the horizon, but I am very proud of how the team I worked with managed our institution, and I know many of us brought the skills I mentioned previously (collaboration, optimism, empathy, respect and responsibility) to the team.

Create strong teams to support each other

The second unusual experience occurred on my return journey as I passed through Dublin airport, where I found myself surrounded by the Irish men’s rugby team. In their bright green uniform, you couldn’t miss them, and many passengers stopped for a chat or a selfie. The team members were polite, friendly and, despite their recent successes, quite unassuming. They behaved like a team I’d like to be a part of. This reminded me again that the higher education sector will need to work as a team to face the current challenges.

Executive teams, university communities and the sector as a whole will all need to work with key stakeholders – including funders, policymakers, and local, national and international governments – not only to address the current challenges but so we can bring our expertise and resources to support our partners on the wider issues they are facing.

I have seen the effect that strong teamwork and partnerships between universities, industry and regional and national governments can have on a place: creating new, better jobs, having a strong skills pipeline, and attracting investment into businesses but also in the arts and social spaces that a whole community can enjoy.

My trip to Dublin, including weathering the storm and meeting an international sports team, reaffirmed for me that, though we’re faced with challenging circumstances that are sometimes beyond our control, we can work through these to build new, better solutions.

To do this we must work as a team at many levels – a team with common values of collaboration, empathy, optimism, respect and responsibility; a team of diverse minds that can solve diverse problems and meet the needs of diverse communities. I don’t think teamwork is solely the realm of female leaders – just look at the Irish men’s rugby team – but I do think many women I know at many levels show the skills needed for teamwork in abundance.

Emma Flynn is provost at the University of Warwick.

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See our International Women’s Day spotlight for more advice and resources from women leaders in higher education.

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