When British academics are asked who they look to for leadership, they cite colleagues and even dead people but not their own managers.
That is one possible message to be drawn from research by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, an organization established by Universities UK and GuildHE. The study, led by researchers at the University of Exeter, calls for academics to develop a "collective voice" at a time when the profession is under immense pressure. It concludes that bodies such as Universities UK and the University and College Union do not meet this need.
The researchers analyzed the views of 350 academics and found a common observation that academic leadership "is not provided by people in formal managerial roles."
Instead, lecturers say, the role is filled by Ph.D. supervisors, former colleagues and leading academics in their field, whether or not they are part of the same institution.
The view of one academic at a young university consulted in the research, cited at the launch event for the study last week, gives a clear perspective on the sources of academic leadership: "People I’ve never met, mostly some of them dead,” she said.
The study titled Academic Leadership: Changing Conceptions, Identities and Experiences in UK Higher Education offers a series of possible ways forward. For example, university managers "anxious to encourage high levels of performance" would be best advised to "step back from mechanistic managerial approaches, and to emphasize instead the values associated with academic excellence."
Other concluding principles include the need to "engage with academics as professionals" instead of as a human resource to be applied in the service of students or "customers."
Universities are also advised to "safeguard 'membership' of the academic community," a principle that may be at odds with the changing higher education landscape, the study acknowledges. "Competition between universities will become characteristic of the sector, driving attempts by management to emphasize academics' loyalty to the institution rather than their scholarly disciplines and networks," it says. "However, we should reiterate that we found little sense that academics generally identify with their employing institution. Brand management is therefore seen as largely irrelevant for academic leadership.”
The study also advocates the necessity of creating "a collective voice" for academics. It says of current sector bodies that “none of them represent the voice of academics as distinct from the managerial concerns of institutions. "Universities UK represents universities as managed institutions; the Universities and Colleges Employers Association speaks for them as employers."
The study adds that the UCU “now has such a broad membership that it cannot really speak for academics per se, and neither the British Academy or the Royal Society have sought to publicly represent the identity and values of academia."
The study concedes it is "doubtful that academics would recognize any external agency speaking for them" as its research shows that “leadership is associated with close colleagueship, and not with representative structures.
"It is more likely that we will see the appearance of 'accidental leaders,' people whose personal stories epitomize the predicament, ideals and hopes of academics."
But the study adds that "we have no examples of this at the moment; rather we seem to be in a leadership lacuna at the collective level."