Imperfect future in Higher Education: why visible and accountable leadership could be the key

05 May 2024      Martin Higgs, AUDE Communications and Campaigns Manager

Higher education institutions play a vital role in shaping the future of our society, and their employees are at the forefront of this mission. However, the current landscape of higher education presents some challenges that must be addressed to ensure future talent is attracted to the sector. This article has been provided ahead of the UHR 2024 Conference by the team at People Insight.

People Insight has a unique perspective on these challenges. We’ve been immersed in education for decades, working alongside more than 65 Higher Education institutions (HEIs) with strong representation across Pre and Post 92 HEIs and Mission Groups organisations.

Our unique lens on the sector offers valuable insights to support HEIs in improving their employee experience, sharing trends and solutions that align with the current employee voice.

Over the past two decades the UK university sector has seen a significant increase in international students - a deliberate move by government to attract the best talent to the country. While a positive step for the sector's growth, it has also created some obstacles for its employees. The departure of the UK from the EU, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the changing employment landscape have all added to the burden. Moreover, the focus on inclusion and well-being has created additional workload, which often lacks practical resources to support it.

To remain competitive globally, the university model must evolve to meet the changing needs and expectations of students and employees alike. Senior leaders need to prioritise their strategies to account for differences in expectations of their diverse workforces, including the increasingly evident intergenerational differences in employee expectations,

Therefore, it is essential to prioritise employee experience - from within the UK and outside - and ensure that HEIs have the necessary support to address these challenges effectively.

Our data and trends show the need to adapt to changing circumstances, with employees looking to university leaders for reassurance, a clear strategy, and certainty that protects the student experience, while at the same time delivering commercial value and attracting and retaining top talent.

Unfortunately, leadership in the university sector is often viewed less favourably than in other industries.  People Insight’s robust HE benchmark* shows 48% of employees in HEIs had confidence in their senior management team compared to 63% in the private sector.

Clearly, we believe that employee engagement and employee lifecycle listening should be designed with a comprehensive, forward-thinking and well-rounded approach. To achieve this, we place great emphasis on assessing the effectiveness of leadership within an organisation. Based on our recent analysis, we discovered that a significant number of employees in the sector feel undervalued and ignored by leaders - less than 60% said they felt recognised for the work they do.

Although their opinions and concerns may be acknowledged, there is often a lack of tangible action from leadership, which ultimately leads to feelings of frustration.

Improving leadership skills and emotional intelligence is key to effective leadership. One way to achieve this is by encouraging leaders to listen to their employees' voices and prioritise their insights when making evidence-based decisions. This approach fosters a sense of ownership among colleagues and breaks down hierarchical barriers, leading to improved psychological safety and inclusivity. Although leading a university is a complex task, particularly during such turbulent times, incorporating the views, opinions, and solutions of thousands of colleagues is a democratic way to manage it.

The leadership of a university should consider all colleagues through the lens of a relationship when making operational decisions that affect both students and employees. Similar to any relationship, it's essential to be more attentive and responsive when relationships are under pressure. During uncertain times, a two-way dialogue becomes even more critical. Leaders should seize this opportunity to foster more conversation and utilise technology to prioritise solutions.

Traditional leadership methods, such as controlling and commanding, can impede progress and have a negative cultural impact.  Instead, future-focused universities are investing and seeing the opportunity within, by listening to their greatest asset - their people - and by addressing challenges and opportunities in an agile manner.

By adopting this approach, universities can navigate uncertain times and continue to attract, retain and enhance the employee experience, leading to long-term success for the sector.

There is much to celebrate, too. Employees in HEIs are typically more passionate and driven at work than those elsewhere. 8 in 10 find their work interesting and challenging and a similar number get a sense of achievement from working at their HEI.   More than 9 in 10 Higher Education staff say they have good relationships with the colleagues they work with - way above other sector averages.

At People Insight, we value a positive employee experience and offer guidance and support to help higher education institutions ready themselves for a 2030 workplace.

The future may be imperfect but now is the time to act.

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