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Leadership in universities

Peter Scott (Department of Lifelong and Comparative Education, Institute of Education, London, UK)

International Journal of Leadership in Public Services

ISSN: 1747-9886

Article publication date: 17 August 2011




The purpose of this paper is to consider whether recent changes in higher education – notably a tripling of student fees and the withdrawal of most direct public funding for teaching – pose fundamental challenges for the pattern of governance, leadership and management in colleges in universities. It considers the impact not only of these visible, politically‐driven changes but also of less visible and longer‐terms shifts in curriculum, teaching delivery, learning cultures and research organisation.


Higher education has changed more than most other publicly funded services. Within the space of two generations it has moved from being a collection of institutions catering for an academically (and socially) selected elite, to become a mass system enrolling almost half of young adults – and an increasing proportion of adult students. Yet its governance and management have been marked by continuity. This paper considers the challenges that this greatly extended role for higher education poses for leadership – but in the context of stable arrangements for governance and management. Higher education leadership is also compared, and contrasted with, leadership in other parts of the public sector.


Although higher education has been influenced by the New Public Management, it has changed less than other publicly funded services. Although Vice‐chancellors have taken on many of the trappings of executive leaders, most continue to be drawn from traditional academic backgrounds. Few professional managers have broken through into top leadership roles. Governance arrangements, in particular, have changed little – posing issues of strategic oversight and management accountability. Nevertheless, universities have demonstrated remarkable resilience and adaptability, experiencing few of the crises (financial and otherwise) common in other parts of the public sector. This apparent paradox may indicate how effective university leadership may be in the context of managing more open and distributed “knowledge” organisations.


Conventional wisdom, within central government and elsewhere, suggests that higher education may be experiencing a “deficit” in relation to modern leadership cultures. This paper challenges that assumption, suggesting that other parts of the public sector, especially, those employing a large number of expert and autonomous professionals, could learn from the experience of universities.



Scott, P. (2011), "Leadership in universities", International Journal of Leadership in Public Services, Vol. 7 No. 3, pp. 229-234.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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