Leading with Vision

Eamon Mullan is University Secretary at Ulster University. In this post, he considers what being a leader within higher education really means.

Just what are we, as leaders within our organisations and in higher education, leading? That is the question I have been pondering since I last wrote for this blog.

Targets and tables

I am sure other universities in the sector are no different from mine. We appoint people on significant salaries to deliver on particular roles, including international student recruitment, student experience, teaching quality and so on. These individuals are charged with delivering on specific KPIs and targets.

Increasingly there are external pressures and measures of success that push institutions towards a bottom line common denominator in these areas. We now have league tables for everything: REF, TEF and the increasingly complex regulatory regime heralded by the establishment of the Office for Students. Yet I have yet to meet a student who considers themselves to be a KPI.

Of course, as senior leaders in our universities we must ensure that ‘targets’ are met by individual portfolio leads. We also remain accountable for the ‘performance’ of our universities – whatever that means!

But as leaders within what is essentially a mission-driven sector, can we afford to operate in a way that sees us purely driven by the financial bottom line? Or is there a higher ideal that is enshrined within our culture and values? I say there is.

A higher vision

For me, the issue here is how we distinguish institutional and sectoral leadership from the day-to-day running of our institutions.

Simon Sinek, the motivational leadership guru, says, “Leadership requires two things: A vision of the world that does not yet exist and the ability to communicate it.” What is this vision for our sector? Or, to return to my original question, if we are leaders then what are we leading?

Cardinal Newman, writing in the nineteenth century, suggested that “the special fruit of the education furnished at a university” is “a habit of mind … which lasts through life, of which the attributes are, freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom; or what I have ventured to call a philosophical habit.” He goes on to say that there are only two qualities a university ought to impart: “the first is clarity and honesty of thought, and the second is intellectual curiosity.”

There is little there about targets in terms of measuring the success of the sector!

Culture over KPIs

Leaders at a sectoral level, and I include those who hold high office in individual institutions, are doing the sector a disservice if they simply accept the new regulatory framework without challenging it. Instead we must ensure that it supports rather than hinders learning and the expansion of knowledge.

To this end, senior teams should be focusing on developing, maintaining, promoting and leading institutional culture and values. Effective and successful leadership is more about setting those values and culture, rather achieving specific metrics or KPIs.

Universities, in the greater interest of society, have to be about more than ‘making ends meet’ and following the latest trend for diversifying income. If that’s what we are about then we just become another corporation, a factory that produces graduates according to the current trends.

As leaders, both within our own institutions and on a sector wide basis we must fight to protect the objects that are enshrined in most of our governing documents: “to preserve, advance and disseminate knowledge and culture through teaching, scholarship and research”. We must protect some concept of ‘knowledge for knowledge’s sake’, and collectively we must define and promote the cultures that serve that well.