Who will lead successful change in HE?

05 May 2024      Martin Higgs, AUDE Communications and Campaigns Manager

The current zeitgeist in the UK higher education scene is all about balancing the books and proving your worth. Leaders in the sector are under pressure to show tangible outcomes and navigate mounting financial challenges. There's this ongoing debate about whether a degree is really worth it, especially when tuition fees have been stuck since 2012 while costs keep rising. This article has been written by the team at Gatenby Sanderson ahead of the UHR 2024 Conference.

One big shift we're seeing is universities focusing more on vocational needs and addressing skills gaps. It's not just about theory anymore; it's about equipping students with practical skills that employers actually want.

Think less "ivory tower" and more "real-world ready."

In this metrics-driven environment, university leaders have to get creative with their strategies. They're looking at how to make every penny count, exploring new ways to generate income while keeping education quality high. It's a tricky balancing act.

The bottom line is, the value of a degree is being questioned, and universities are adapting. They're rethinking curriculum, strengthening ties with industry, and emphasising the employability of graduates. It's not just about getting a piece of paper; it's about gaining skills that open doors in the job market.

Ultimately, the future of the sector hinges on how effectively leaders navigate these complexities.

To provide key insight into how equipped HE leaders are to tackle these challenges we reference the GatenbySanderson leadership model, Altitude, which describes behavioural excellence for leaders working across the Public, Not for Profit Sector, Higher and Further Education.

We have mapped assessment data on over 6,500 leaders to these behaviours allowing us to benchmark and compare leader capability in different sectors to the Public Sector (we have data for over 300 leaders from Higher Education). We calculate this variance to generate a Net Leadership Capability score that can then be reported as a ‘strength’ or a ‘risk’.  

The trend in our Higher Education data suggests leaders have a greater focus on delivering results and producing outputs compared to our public sector sample with Net Leadership Scores above that of the public sector. This includes ‘tackle tomorrow’ which focuses on leading and managing change across systems, driving evolution, and continually transforming the way services operate and are delivered. During times of change and disruption leaders can harness this to support change. ‘Social Heart, Commercial Head’ is key in delivering efficiencies in services whilst maintaining quality for students, staff, and stakeholders.

Interestingly, our data suggests no areas where the Net Leadership Capability places HE leaders significantly below the public sector baseline, however, we can consider possible impacts of overplayed strengths in relation to the preference for ‘Focus on Outcomes’. These could include whether leaders drive to achieve outcomes overshadows the emotional agility and influencing skills required to bring others with them when delivering on change, and whether they can draw on the personal resilience to manage such large-scale disruption.

So, with higher education leaders being more outcome-focused than leaders in other sectors, how can you identify who has the capacity to adapt to the changing environment and who can be creative and drive change in this highly regulated and closely scrutinised sector?  

At GatenbySanderson, we use a suite of different techniques tailored to the needs of our university clients to assess what needs assessing, using video applications where to seek early evidence of candidates’ communication styles and psychometric assessments to provide insights into personality preferences. We can use a range of psychometrics tools to understand team dynamics and support leadership teams to work together effectively through understanding each other's strengths, preferences, and styles.

  • What do you look for when you are recruiting into senior leadership roles?
  • How are you preparing your SLTs for the challenges they are facing?

We would love to hear if you are adapting your practices to reflect the changing state of higher education.

Contact Alison Elton at: for more information.

GatenbySanderson will be hosting a session on Tuesday 14th May at UHR called “Technology enabled, human centred: using technology in recruitment to set candidates up for success”. Looking at the changes in the sector and what this means for recruiting senior HE leaders.

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