Leading universities in financially challenging times

Leading a university can become very difficult when finances are strapped and difficult decisions must be made. Petra Wend, Vice-Chancellor of Queen Margaret University, discusses how university leaders can develop to better lead in uncertain times.

Diverse university funding systems in different countries around the world and varying degrees of autonomy lead universities to develop different strategic responses. Despite these differences, all universities face increasingly complex and fast-changing environments. Whatever their challenging contexts are, university leaders need to position their institutions on the national, European and global stages and they can only do this by bringing their colleagues and external stakeholders on board.

In the UK, there has been some debate about the pay of vice-chancellors (rector or president in other countries), perceived to be excessive by many, and about their leadership style and resulting desired models and structures of successful leadership. Trade unions have advocated a “return” to collegiality and collective decision making, away from so-called “managerialism”, while various UK leadership development programmes are trying to prepare future leaders by presenting a variety of leadership models for different contexts.

Financial challenges for universities in the UK, identified as a country in Europe that has seen a significant decrease in state funding in recent years, combined with other pressures on vice-chancellors, such as constant criticism in the media and elsewhere, and frequent imposed policy changes, have resulted in many university leaders leaving their positions. According to two UK recruitment agencies for senior university leaders, there has been an “unprecedented level of change in leadership of universities” (Perrett Laver), and “People are saying, ‘Sod it. I’m off’.” (Odgers Berndtson).

In order to meet these multiple pressures, there has been a move away from a “heroic leadership model”, to one of “inclusive leadership” and a “servant model of leadership”. The skills needed to lead universities in this fast-changing world are those of emotional intelligence, agility and the ability to engage with people. Change, particularly in challenging contexts, cannot be exercised in a directive manner as it needs to be based on the understanding of the interdependent structures, systems and relationships. At the end of change are people with whom leaders need to engage continuously in various ways and at a variety of levels. Communication is key and, although inherent in its definition (meaning, exchange of information), is often misunderstood as imparting information one-way without the important element of listening.

How can future university leaders be developed to lead in such uncertain times and can these softer skills be learnt? The answer is not straightforward. If a university leader is passionate about his or her university, being persuasive to internal and external stakeholders comes naturally. On the other hand, leadership development programmes that not only teach financial, human resources and political expertise but also present various models of leadership that individuals can identify with and choose from can be a good basis for authentic leadership, which includes sensitivities to students and staff.

Ultimately, a cultural fit between a university and its leader is needed. Given that constant engagement with colleagues and students, and the wider community, is tiring, as well as the relentless pressure and frequent criticism they face, it is also clear that resilience is another key quality that university leaders need. Others include enthusiasm and persuasiveness, and an ability to listen and learn and create a shared sense of a university vision. Perseverance and patience are also needed when trying to reach the goals of the university’s vision as the journey to achieving these goals never moves in a straight line, but is disrupted, questioned, thrown in the air, paused and started again. Constantly keeping the end goal in one’s mind helps with the process.

In the UK, a small minority of university leaders come from outside academia. Experience external to the university world and a good understanding of business can be an added bonus for successful university leadership, especially if they aid, rather than hinder, the achievement of credibility among the academic staff members. However, the vast majority of university leaders in the UK come and continue to come from academic backgrounds as sensitivity to the academic context and environment is, and continues to be, increasingly important.

Leading a university is a challenge. It becomes even more challenging when difficult decisions have to be taken in challenging financial times. It becomes a little easier if the leader has a natural passion and enthusiasm for his or her institution and can combine this with softer people skills and emotional intelligence. However, most importantly, a university leader needs to be humble and needs to like people. And that applies to any country he or she may be working in.


Petra Wend discussed this topic at the 4th EUA Funding Forum held on 18-19 October 2018 at Ramon Llull University in Barcelona, Spain.

“Expert Voices” is an online platform featuring original commentary and analysis on the higher education and research sector in Europe. It offers EUA experts, members and partners the opportunity to share their expertise and perspectives in an interactive and flexible exchange on key topics in the field.

All views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of EUA.

Petra Wend

Petra Wend is Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, UK. Her research background is in institutional strategies underpinning successful leadership, improvements in student experience and university performance indicators. In 2015, she was awarded a Fellowship of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in recognition of her inspirational leadership in higher education. 


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