Empowering university leaders to navigate complex challenges



European universities are facing a multitude of challenges, necessitating innovative and effective leadership. Today’s university leaders must navigate major transformational issues, including the green and digital transition, evolving student and public expectations and shifting labour market demands, not to forget multiple ongoing crises.

Recognising the pivotal role of university leadership in this context, the European University Association embarked on the Erasmus+ supported NEWLEAD project three years ago, coordinated by Ramon Llull University in Barcelona, Spain, in collaboration with like-minded partners.

The project aimed to empower university leaders across Europe, equipping them to address the complexities of this evolving landscape.

Lessons learnt from NEWLEAD

How can we foster the capacity of university leaders to effectively steer change and address new transformational priorities? To answer this crucial question, NEWLEAD explored the evolving roles and responsibilities of university leaders, identified key competencies required for effective leadership and assessed the support available to leaders as they confront major transformation challenges.

Major topics addressed by the project included sustainability, social inclusion, transnational cooperation, university partnerships (such as the new European university alliances) and the need for greater representation of female leadership.

As such, we created a knowledge base through data collection and capacity building, utilising a peer-learning approach. For example, 236 universities from 27 European Higher Education Area countries and 21 national university associations contributed to a mapping exercise to capture institutional and system-level perspectives on institutional transformation and leadership development in Europe.

The data unveiled crucial drivers of institutional transformation, such as national legislation, strategies and European or international trends. It also highlighted the financial pressures that universities face in this changing landscape. Crucially, university leadership consistently came to the fore as a guiding force behind these transformations within universities.

In various focus groups, we convened members of university executive leadership teams to explore leadership strategies for overcoming external and internal challenges in significant transformation projects. These discussions notably highlighted the diverse skill sets required for successful leadership.

A collaborative, shared leadership approach, involving academic and professional support leaders, is essential to combine the complex skill sets necessary for managing substantial transformations. These competencies encompass a broad range of skills and qualities, including vision and strategic thinking, effective communication, empowering others, networking, trust-building and active listening among others.

While no single leader can perfectly embody all these skills, structured learning, including more formal learning paths like university leadership development programmes, are essential to support and enhance leadership skills within the higher education sector.

Diversity in supporting university leadership across Europe

There is significant diversity in terms of university leadership development across Europe. NEWLEAD found that approximately 60% of institutional representatives consider leadership development a high priority, with nearly 70% viewing it as essential for driving organisational change. However, awareness of the importance of leadership development varies.

University leadership development programmes (LDPs) for senior leaders, leadership teams or other university staff are not the norm. Indeed, there is a stark asymmetry in the provision of such programmes across Europe. Among 21 national university associations consulted during the project, 18 identified untapped potential for LDPs in their respective systems.

Even those with existing programmes recommended a more systemic approach to reach a wider audience.

Insights from university leadership programmes

Alongside this data, we analysed 10 university leadership development programmes at system-level, including in Denmark, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Sweden and Switzerland. This led to an ‘inspirational guide’ that offers a framework for designing and implementing LDPs within higher education institutions and systems.

This guide provides valuable insights into programme architecture, format, content, evaluation and logistics. It also showcases successful examples of programmes that support female leadership. Therefore, it is a helpful starting point for developing LDPs and raising awareness about their value.

Most university LDPs focus on national issues and context, with only a few having an international component. Furthermore, there are important transformation topics such as green and digital transitions, diversity and international collaboration, all of which are highly relevant in today’s higher education landscape but are still rarely covered.

Collective leadership and leadership styles

Aside from developing their skills as individuals, what about leaders as a group? NEWLEAD partners from Spain showcased the value of collective leadership in addressing common challenges, such as equity and diversity, and in implementing sustainable development goals within universities.

Furthermore, our project partners from Poland demonstrated how leading together can more effectively address the multiple challenges faced during a crisis.

For further insight, an additional NEWLEAD report focusing on leadership styles in higher education provides valuable insights into the most pertinent leadership styles and approaches. It also identifies which styles are particularly effective in assisting university leaders in navigating transformation challenges.

The way forward

The NEWLEAD project has shed light on the evolving landscape of higher education and the indispensable role of leadership in addressing its challenges. Indeed, it has led us to several recommendations for universities and national and European policy-makers, outlining the steps they need to take to support current and future university leaders.

It is clear that a strategic approach to university leadership development in Europe is imperative. This strategy must encompass a holistic view of institutional, national and European perspectives.

With the experience gained from the NEWLEAD project, as well as other projects addressing leadership issues such as LOTUS, which focused on leadership in learning and teaching, and USTREAM, which explored efficiency and effectiveness in leadership, we have a solid foundation to create a sustainable platform for supporting current and future university leaders through capacity-building opportunities at the European level.

At the European University Association, we are committed to championing these efforts and collaborating with our member institutions to build a brighter future for European higher education.

Josep M Garrell is president of the European University Association. Thomas Estermann is director of governance, funding and public policy development at the European University Association. They shared further details from the three-year project and the European University Association’s plans to contribute to university leadership capacity building at the European level at the final NEWLEAD event on 25 October 2023.

Note: The Erasmus+ supported project “Innovative Leadership and Change Management in Higher Education” (NEWLEAD, 2020-2023) focused on capacity building of university leaders to steer change and address new priorities on the institutional transformation agenda. The NEWLEAD consortium was led by Ramon Llull University in partnership with the European University Association, the Conference of Rectors of Academic Schools in Poland, ESCP Business School, the University of Iceland, the Flemish Interuniversity Council and the Conference of Rectors of Spanish Universities. The consortium included as associated partners Universities of The Netherlands, the Irish Universities Association, the Conference of Italian University Rectors, and the Polish Rectors Foundation.


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