Higher education research

Publication Date



Paper presented at the British Education Research Association Conference, Edinburgh, 3-6 September 2008.


This paper draws on the responses of 134 Heads of School and Heads of Department who were part of a larger study of 513 Australian higher education leaders. Heads of School / Department are at the centre of complex relational interfaces comprising faculty, students, central administration, and external entities and support agencies. While such experiences are not necessarily unique to Heads, the analysis suggests that they do perhaps experience these challenges in more intense and explicit ways than many other managers, as they have to ‘manage’ both up and down. Many of the Heads perceived taking on this position was a backward rather than forward career step in the development of an academic career. However, the analysis also suggested that this group of leaders are critical to change efforts in higher education but are often the forgotten middle leaders. Their learning for leadership is done on-the-job and mostly adhoc. Feedback on the results from the large-scale survey was sought through workshops with over 500 higher education leaders across Australia and internationally. According to this feedback, studies like this one that set out to identify the experiences of ‘fellow travellers’ are helpful to leaders in a range of ways. It helped them, (a) realise that their experiences of leadership are not necessarily idiosyncratic; (b) identify the perceived connections, overlaps and differences between different formal leadership positions; (c) identify and understand conditions that may aid and thwart effective practices. These issues have important implications for succession thinking and practice in higher education. The research team are currently producing a prototype online leadership development tool for trial by university leaders early in 2009.