Higher education institutions need to rethink their approach to training middle managers

13 September 2016 -


Training programmes need to be tailored to the specific needs of departments and individuals

Jermaine Haughton

More support and individually tailored training is needed for university middle managers in order to correctly prepare them for more senior and challenging roles in an increasingly-complex global higher education system, according to new research.

The white paper from Alan Floyd, Senior Lecturer in Leadership and Management at the Open University, Supporting academic middle managers in higher education: do we care?, found that higher education institutions should be offering a support and training process for middle managers that focuses on the specific leadership needs of individuals and their departments, while also being balanced with the corporate needs of the institution as a whole.

The study, based on interviews with 28 academic middle managers, reports that institutions must do more to ensure that academics who take on management positions feel supported and have the necessary leadership and management skills to deal with the difficulties of the job, such as time management and extensive paperwork.

“While institutions may develop generic training and support for their middle managers to cope with increasing externally driven market pressures,” the report reads, “customised programmes, tailored to fit the individual and taking into account the differing departmental cultures present in all large higher education organisations, appear to be essential aspects of any such schemes.”

Bottom Up Training

The Open University study suggests that a “bottom up” approach is a better method of designing training courses for middle managers, whereby department leaders are trained according to succeed in the particular context in which they work in.

This is in contrast to generic, umbrella leadership development activities made by senior academic managers or by Human Resource departments, which are not rigorous and detailed enough to prepare middle managers for their roles effectively.

Learning about a department’s culture therefore allows individuals to learn how to act out roles of self-presentation appropriate to their professional roles, such as the role of department head, and to do so within their particular departmental context.

At Oakbank, such an organic training structure was used on several occasions, including shadowing and learning from people in similar positions, and the scheme received positive reviews from employees.

Graham, a department head in Social Sciences at the university shadowed the outgoing leader for a year before taking on the role, and said: “So we had a fortnightly meeting together and he would say, “this is what I have done this week and this is what I am going to do.” So that was my best bit of preparation.”

Similarly at Hillside, social sciences manager Maria explained that she benefited hugely from the peer consultation on offer:

“I think the other thing that I found useful is meeting with other people in other schools who’ve got a similar kind of management role and you can learn from their experiences and the kind of approach they take to things and it gives you a wider perspective,” she said.

Increasing Higher Education Demands

In fact, the data suggests the need for fully-prepared managers is as important for education institutions as having the right academic personnel and students in prospering in an ever-more constricted higher education environment.

In the UK, and elsewhere, universities are constantly measured on their academic performance through such activities as internal and external quality assurance procedures, institutional and national student surveys, research assessment exercises, and national and international published league tables.

Equally, the role and focus of universities seems to be evolving, especially for undergraduate teaching, as institutions are coming under growing governmental pressure to prepare graduates for the world of work.

Furthermore, with students reportedly more willing to study outside their own their countries and international universities in some countries, such as China, growing rapidly, Higher Education institutions are increasingly becoming international in their outlooks as they strive to compete in a global market.

Therefore, competent academic managers are crucial for balancing these different responsibilities through making key day-to-day departmental decisions.

Despite this, the new research found that many departments are led by managers with no formal leadership training.

Only three of 17 managers at one University had received training before taking on management roles and one manager comments this “hampered him quite severely in his first few weeks and months”.

The research paper concluded: “If we accept the fact that good leaders are essential for the future success of our higher education institutions (Osseo-Asare et al. 2007; Rowley and Sherman 2003), particularly in such a rapidly changing global HE environment, then we, as a profession, need to combat the notion of greedy organisations (with leadership beings described as particularly “greedy work” (Morley 2013, p. 9)) and provide more time, support and training for today’s academic middle managers to allow them to fulfil their duties successfully.

“The data presented here suggest that both teaching-led and research-led institutions need to support the people in these positions more carefully, and protect their time more, so that those who take on these crucial roles feel valued and that the best may become the sector’s effective senior leaders of tomorrow.”

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