New demands on universities and their people will require fresh thinking on professional development

Interviews with university leaders by Wonkhe for Advance HE reveal a sector that is increasingly outward-facing. Advance HE chief executive Alison Johns considers the implications for how universities support and develop their people

Alison Johns is chief executive of Advance HE

Higher education is enormously well-served for professional development opportunities including in-house training and development, the pursuit of teaching accreditation or other recognised qualifications, and support for participation in one or more of a range of thriving professional networks.

As a sector we can be proud of how we support university staff to learn and develop. However, today we are seeing academic careers increasingly diversify and universities become ever-more sophisticated in their strategic ambitions. The demands on university staff are thus becoming more complex and the range and focus of development opportunities will need to reflect this.

Looking outward

In the summer of 2023 we commissioned Wonkhe to interview a small number of heads of institutions from across the globe to explore how their institutional strategies in the years ahead are likely to inform their people and skills needs.

The report, Looking outward: the changing people needs of higher education, found heads of institution articulating a greater external orientation, as universities in their different ways pursue research impact, enterprise, graduate employability, internationalisation, and closer engagement with their places and civic mission.

There are external drivers for this shift in the increasing emphasis on impact in quality-related research funding, in stakeholder – including regulatory – interest, in student outcomes and progression to professional employment, in the exchange of ideas around internationalisation of research and teaching, and in public policy debates about national and regional economic growth and wellbeing. We’ve seen that technology developments are an ever-present backdrop and an important enabler for institutions to achieve their objectives – if they are able to recruit or develop the right skills to realise its benefits.

In tandem with the shift in external drivers, we are also seeing a far more explicit focus within universities on articulating and living a set of shared values, including on the importance of extending and sharing knowledge, on the power of university education to transform lives, on the value of working in partnership with communities and stakeholders, and on tackling the injustices and inequities that can mean the benefits of universities are unequally distributed across society.

People and communities

From a people and their development and skills perspective, these shifts require expanded capabilities in knowledge exchange, enterprise, and external engagement, and the adoption of cross- and interdisciplinary ways of thinking and institutional innovation. The opportunities for thinking differently about the range of possible career trajectories for academic and professional staff are significant, exciting, and challenging.

It’s clear that there’s also a recognised need to support staff effectively through these transitions – to build inclusive institutional cultures that not only break down barriers to individual career progression, but that offer opportunities for all to contribute to institutional success as part of a community. Where institutions are grappling with specific skills gaps, especially in some professional areas such as finance, IT, and HR where it is difficult for universities to compete on salary or conditions alone, the institutional culture and community can be decisive in retaining expert staff.

As the report shows, university leaders are not looking to accomplish their ambitions alone – quite the opposite. Most interviewees said that a key challenge for their institution is distributing leadership – avoiding a tendency to push difficult decisions upwards, enabling and encouraging mid-level leaders to take on greater responsibility – and affording them the appropriate recognition when they do it. In fact, creating institutional spaces for people to come together, collaborate and co-create is a key theme of the report, suggesting the emergence of thinking about how higher education can foster whole-institution learning and innovation, as distinct from and in addition to supporting individuals’ development trajectories.

How the sector might respond

Though the sample of heads of institution included in the report is relatively small, the findings align with what we have seen in our other global work, such as the the recent Advance HE Leadership Survey for Higher Education, based on a survey of 553 institutional leaders at all levels across the globe, and the recently concluded review of our Professional Standards Framework which was updated based on widespread global consultation.

To my mind, an increasingly external orientation suggests there may be value in considering carefully what support university staff need to support their knowledge exchange, enterprise, internationalising, and civic engagement work, as these practices move from expert to mainstream – and explore how these activities are recognised and valued as part of academic and professional practice. Even where staff do not formally undertake this kind of work as part of their roles I think this can take the form of an expectation of a more entrepreneurial mindset and a clearer sense of the breadth of institutional activity.

We could do more to consolidate the collective learning from universities’ efforts to establish systematic leadership development throughout the institution and put in place frameworks articulating expectations of, and support for mid-level leaders and those taking on leadership responsibilities for the first time. It could also be helpful to see more examples of where leadership roles require the blend of professional and academic expertise, showcasing less traditional pathways to career success and indicating underexplored themes for leadership professional development.

Moreover, building a culture of collaboration, co-creation, and innovation should support wellbeing and inclusion goals, creating a virtuous circle in which the accommodation of diverse perspectives leads to fresh thinking, and the empowering of individuals and teams allows ideas to take root and flourish. This process must be supported and managed – otherwise it may disproportionately advantage the staff who are predisposed to collaborate and/or have the most powerful voices. This is why our work on equality charters is designed to embed inclusion throughout institutional activity, rather than sidelining EDI to a niche activity that doesn’t deliver an impact on wider institutional goals.

I should emphasise that though the report focuses primarily on shared themes for universities globally, there is much that can be learned from difference as well. The broad interest in internationalising and tackling global challenges creates an opportunity to share practice more widely and understand the strengths and weaknesses of different systems, as well as acknowledging the histories shaping them.

It is these kinds of questions and conversations that we hope the report will prompt across the sector as universities continue to evolve their people strategies. We look forward to supporting those discussions and the wider goal of a thriving global higher education sector in the years ahead.

This article is published in association with Advance HE. You can download Looking outward: the changing people needs of higher education here.

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