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As universities face increased pressures and rapid change, leadership development opportunities are in short supply. EUA’s Thomas Estermann and Luisa Bunescu offer their expertise from the NEWLEAD project, breaking down what is needed to ensure leaders are prepared to drive major organisational change.

In recent decades, the winds of change have undoubtedly blown higher education institutions across Europe into turbulent waters. Faced with both external and internal pressures, such as demographic change, shifting labour market requirements, technological progress and financial constraints, universities have embarked on a journey of ongoing adaptation and transformation of their missions, strategies and operations.

Then, in early 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Almost overnight, it forced universities to change their way of working, rapidly moving to online learning and teaching and proving their resilience in this unprecedented crisis. The disruption affected the entire university community – from students to academic and support staff. Reflecting on almost two years since its start, the pandemic has certainly been a rigorous testing board for the leadership skills of senior university executives. The ability to steer their institutions through such difficult times, their resilience, empathy, communication and decision-making skills, all proved to be essential in navigating through the crisis. In fact, the institution’s capacity to mitigate the effects of the pandemic and to continue delivering quality education and excellent research has been invariably linked to the skills and capacities of its leaders.

Recent research conducted under the EU-funded NEWLEAD project proves this point. It shows that an overwhelming majority of those surveyed found it extremely important that university leaders possess a series of personal competences such as open-mindedness, resilience and empathy, alongside strategic and technical skills.

Yet are leaders born or are they made? Compared with other sectors, such as business, in higher education, it is still the case that leaders are often assumed to have natural leadership qualities or are expected to have developed them on the way to their position.

Leadership development opportunities for higher education executives remain in short supply across Europe, with less than a third of those surveyed confirming to have top management programmes at their institutions. This is quite counterintuitive, considering that close to 70% of the respondents considered leadership development as an essential tool for driving major organisational change. In many cases, leadership development is not supported through fully-fledged leadership development programmes but through soft mechanisms such as access to national/international professional networks and participation in thematic peer groups.

The reasons for this are multiple. A continuous professional development culture is still missing in many systems, hence career progression remains disconnected from staff development programmes. Even in those systems supportive of leadership development, two other main obstacles remain, namely funding of such programmes and human resources that can manage and implement them.

Against this backdrop, the NEWLEAD project is now exploring how this gap of structured leadership development programmes can be closed.

In a first step, senior university leaders participating in two focus groups on leadership development will explore what they can contribute to meet the many disruptive transformation challenges at their institutions. Equity, diversity and social inclusion, the digital transition, international collaboration, sustainability and greening are just a few of the themes that will serve as examples on how leadership and effective governance can be key enablers for universities’ success.

Institutional transformation is by no means a light task. With the Covid-19 pandemic still ongoing and alongside other structural changes impacting higher education across Europe, it has become imperative to build on the competences and skills of all members of the executive teams at universities. Great transformative challenges can only be met if there are sufficiently qualified and experienced leaders with complementary profiles.

Over the past decade, as universities have sought to professionalise their structures, senior management profiles have been on the rise. In this context, academic primacy in the running of a university, versus the authority and responsibility of professional staff, has become a contested issue. To ensure institutional success, synergies need to be established between the academic and non-academic professionals, as the different backgrounds and skill sets have the potential to form an effective and valuable leadership team that draws on a wide range of experience and expertise, allowing different viewpoints to be considered.

All this requires a new approach towards leadership training. We aim to contribute towards this new paradigm with the upcoming NEWLEAD focus groups on leadership development and institutional transformation.

Senior leaders at European higher education institutions wishing to participate in the NEWLEAD focus  groups are invited to apply before 21 November 2021.


Thomas Estermann
European University Association

Thomas Estermann is Director for Governance, Funding and Public Policy Development with responsibilities for EUA’s work aimed at strengthening universities’ autonomy, governance, management and their financial sustainability.

Luisa Bunescu
European University Association

Luisa Bunescu is Policy Analyst in the EUA Governance, Funding and Public Policy Development Unit. She joined the Association in 2016, initially as Policy and Project Officer in the Higher Education Policy Unit.

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