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The developmental needs of higher education academic leaders in encouraging effective teaching and learning

Shelda Debowski and Vivienne Blake
The University of Western Australia

While teaching and learning is an increasingly valued component of university work, there has been limited recognition of the role university leaders play in encouraging good teaching and learning. This paper reviews the teaching leadership responsibilities of various academics in universities, identifying the range of leadership roles which might be assumed. It argues that effective academic leaders draw on educational principles and leadership skills to encourage good teaching. The complexity of these responsibilities is clearly evident when the different educational roles are considered more closely. A course coordinator, for example, requires a different leadership focus to a head of school. A detailed examination of these roles is undertaken, leading to a review of how developmental support for these teaching leaders might be undertaken. We argue that academic roles need to be more clearly defined, and supported more specifically, so that the different leadership roles can be better developed. The need to more strongly support academics who lead teaching is identified as a critical priority for Australian universities.

Universities across Australia are focusing more intensively on teaching and learning as a range of issues emerge from federal government policies, and wider public scrutiny of the higher education setting. The Nelson review (Nelson, 2003) has led to a refocus on teaching indicators and the factors which enhance teaching quality. As students are charged increasingly larger fees to attend universities, there is also evidence of more public scrutiny of course quality and the learning experience offered within programs. Students undertaking higher degree research programs are also under increasing pressure to perform efficiently to complete their research in the minimum time. In addition, public exposure of soft marking and plagiarism cases within universities has opened up further debate on the ways in which teaching is managed within the higher education contexts. These external pressures have necessitated a stronger focus on teaching processes and outcomes within universities.

Higher expectations of teaching occur at a difficult time for academics. The demand for publications, research grants and external linkage networks is growing, placing commensurate pressure on academics to balance their teaching loads with the need to maintain creditable research productivity. While it can be argued that it is desirable to build a strong nexus between teaching, scholarship and research (Badley, 2003), this is not always feasible for many academics, particularly if they are seeking to build research partnerships externally or across discipline areas. Reductions in government funding have also led to an increasing reliance on casual teachers in universities, particularly in undergraduate teaching, forcing a stronger leadership role on many academics, despite their own increasing teaching loads.

Despite the importance of good teaching, there can be a decreased focus on encouraging its development. Universities, while often paying lip-service to the need to build good quality teaching, frequently fail to reflect these principles in practice. Universities need to target teaching quality as a strategic priority. With emerging federal agendas (Nelson, 2003), there is an urgent need to re-evaluate how teaching is promoted, and to identify factors which will encourage greater involvement of mainstream academics in these activities. While promotion and performance management systems may encourage long-term systemic change, an area of major need in universities is the development of teaching leadership (Taylor, 1999). This is different to teaching excellence, where the individual academic aims to achieve individual excellence when teaching students. This paper explores the notion of academic leadership where an individual seeks to influence the teaching practice of others. It examines the ways in which teaching leadership may be better defined and supported in higher education settings. It argues that there are different developmental needs for those operating at different levels of teaching leadership.

Defining academic leadership

The general leadership roles undertaken by academics have been explored extensively by Ramsden (1998). His analysis identifies four key areas of leadership activity: providing guidance and vision to members of an academic group, managing the performance of those members, ensuring effective task management, and supporting the management of strategic change. Ramsden argues that the context in which leaders operate strongly influences the styles of leadership which emerge. He identifies various forms of leaders, including those who are collegial, enterprising, bureaucratic or corporate. The culture in which the academic operates, and the level of policy control and definition are seen as key factors influencing the teaching and learning leadership styles which emerge. Leaders are perceived to range from 'gifted amateurs', to professionals who learn a craft and seek to develop further expertise as an ongoing commitment.

The translation of amateur academic leaders to effective professionals relies on the infrastructure and support which is integrated into the university setting (Middlehurst, 1993). Ramsden argues that good policies, clear expectations, coherent distributed leadership and flexible implementation are fundamental components of an effective leadership environment. While these are sound principles, the actual enactment of support for those engaged in teaching and learning may remain collegial, and therefore ad hoc in nature for many universities (Orsmond & Stiles, 2003). We would argue that one reason for this is the inadequate delineation of what leadership entails for those supporting teaching and learning in universities.

Leading teaching in a university

Teaching leaders operate at all levels within a university (Ingram, 1993). They may be found in a range of roles, including heads of school, discipline leaders, program chairs, or unit coordinators. While the complexity and scope of these roles differ, they all play a significant role in influencing teaching and learning. Table 1 describes the key roles each of these contributors may play in enhancing teaching and learning.

Table 1: Academic leadership in university settings

Pro-Vice Chancellor
(Academic) /
  • Provides strategic leadership to the University in relation to teaching and learning.
  • Ensures policies and practices are aligned to ensure effective teaching.
  • Monitors teaching and learning standards across the university
  • Reviews systems and structures to identify barriers and impediments to good teaching.
Head of School/
  • Reviews and evaluates the School's teaching programs in terms of their relevance, suitability and market value.
  • Guides academic staff as to University teaching policy and its enactment.
  • Explores new forms of teaching and promotes the use of strategies which are relevant to the teaching context within the school / department.
  • Encourages and monitors quality teaching and learning outcomes across the groups and programs operating.
  • Provides developmental support for staff to improve their teaching and learning strategies.
  • Identifies and encourages innovations in teaching and learning.
  • Models best practice in teaching and learning.
  • Promotes and applauds quality teachers.
Discipline Leader
  • Represents a broad field of study taught within a university.
  • Monitors emerging disciplinary trends and promotes these to other colleagues.
  • Maintains communication with professional bodies and agencies in relation to program development, accreditation and related issues.
  • Encourages debate and discussion of emerging areas of likely relevance to the discipline.
  • Identifies potential collaborations outside the discipline and nurtures these.
    (Professors may reflect this broader discipline focus in their roles.)
Program Chair
  • Monitors student outcomes and benchmarks with other competitors.
  • Assesses the coverage of key competencies in the overall program.
  • Monitors the quality of outcomes across the program.
  • Provides guidance and direction to tutors, lecturers and unit leaders.
  • Ensures university policy is reflected in the program.
  • Identifies new areas of content to be incorporated.
  • Regularly evaluates the program coverage for value and currency.
  • Involves unit coordinators, lecturers and tutors in ongoing review and development of the program.
Unit Coordinator
  • Ensures the unit reflects the coverage and depth required, as well as being up-to-date and relevant to student needs.
  • Develops and provides guidance on effective standards relating to academic principles, assessment, content and the support of student needs.
  • Provides support and encouragement to tutors, students and colleagues associated with the unit.
  • Evaluates the unit quality and outcomes and ensures feedback is reflected in revisions to the unit.

It may be seen that some general leadership principles imbue the various roles which may be assumed (Bolman & Deal, 1999), and that there are some key teaching concerns which underpin all levels of academic leadership. In terms of the teaching and learning aspect of their role, academic leaders require:

In addition, teaching leaders require many of the skills which are more broadly noted in explorations of general leadership attributes (eg. Bolman & Deal; Heifetz & Laurie, 1998). A recent Australian study, for example, identified a number of features which are evident in successful organisations (Hubbard, Samuel, Heap and Cocks, 2003). These are readily applied to the teaching and learning context, and capture many of the broader leadership attributes which should be evident in academic leaders. For example, it can be argued that university teaching leaders should aim to develop: Thus, academic leaders require expertise across three spheres: the discipline, the educational framework, and leadership principles. These all need to be further developed as an individual assumes leadership roles in promoting teaching and learning.

One size fits all?

Unfortunately, this is where the challenge becomes increasingly apparent. Universities tend to focus their attention on either Foundations programs (which provide a grounding for core teaching competencies) or leadership programs which are generic in nature, targeting basic leadership competencies. The more specialised form of teaching leadership is less well recognised, and certainly, little supported in most universities. The University of Melbourne offers a range of programs which target leadership development for heads of school, or potential heads, but there is generally little recognition of the complexity of academic, more specifically, teaching leadership.

There are some increasingly pressing needs which must be addressed in supporting teaching leaders. First, it needs to be recognised that academic leaders operate at various levels, and that their curriculum and pedagogic bases are different. A unit coordinator, for example, must ensure that the unit reflects the most advanced representation of the curriculum, and that the teaching and learning processes are ethical, fair and engaging. Integrity in marking processes, and the development of the teaching team are the key priorities at this level. The building of performance standards for tutors, demonstrators and markers, and the monitoring of these are key roles to be undertaken by unit coordinators. The design of learning opportunities needs to be carefully considered, as should the use of strategies such as flexible delivery. Communication requires a range of strategies, including team meetings, email management and the development of written guidelines. Moderation across markers and benchmarking with competitors are key elements of leadership at this level. Effective project management also needs to be undertaken, as the evaluation of unit and teaching quality needs to be planned ahead, along with feedback to students and the teaching team. At this level, the leadership attributes relating to effective management, communication, building trust and encouraging commitment are key aspects of the role.

In comparison, the discipline chair is more externally focused, aiming to build discipline networks within and beyond the university, and to monitor new developments in the discipline. This role focuses on principles of innovation, with the need to develop foresight capabilities, so that future areas of need are identified early, and planned well ahead of external pressures forcing change. The inculcation of a culture of sharing and collaboration, and the ability to share visions and to build alignment across the various member perspectives are core aspects of the discipline chair role. The politics attached to this role in a shrinking climate needs to be recognised, particularly as universities extend their cross-disciplinary emphases, and even look at collaborating across institutions.

Program chairs, on the other hand, need to be more grounded in core teaching principles, and in the processes of evaluating and redeveloping ever changing curricula. The university development of generic attributes, teaching and learning policies, and the adoption of new technologies and strategies must all be reflected in their teaching programs. Strong leadership skills are needed. At this level, program chairs need to direct and oversee a range of unit coordinators and possibly, discipline chairs. They are responsible for monitoring the quality of the overall program, and must address performance issues if they arise. Plagiarism issues may be handled at this level, along with the support for students with concerns at the program level. The chair may also manage an external advisory committee, and may be responsible for the marketing of the program to students and the external community. Website planning and management may also fall under this person's role. Thus, the leadership is very much about ensuring alignment, building a collaborative culture and managing outcomes. The span of networks and colleagues to be managed makes this particularly challenging from a leadership perspective.

Perhaps most challenging is the role of Head of School (or department) (Hecht, Higgerson, Gmelch & Tucker, 1999; Sarros, Gmelch, Tanewski, 1997). Many universities find it challenging to find staff willing to assume this role, and to give it the attention it requires. Heads of school often find they lose their capacity to research or to publish, due to the immense demands of the role. The increasing range of expectations on heads of school also means that teaching and learning is just one of many priorities to be managed. The major challenge for heads of school in providing teaching leadership is that the role is primarily culture-focused. Academics within the school need to be encouraged to see teaching and learning as a priority; something which is valued, recognised and rewarded. The development of communities of practice and mentorship within the academic community are higher level outcomes which demonstrate strong achievement of this leadership. However, these goals are particularly challenging in Australian universities, where the financial rewards are often linked to research outcomes, not teaching inputs. The role of determining academic workloads, for example, can sometimes reduce goodwill toward the Head of School, who must navigate between staff well-being and the quest for teaching quality, and difficult financial constraints. Thus, leadership programs for staff at this level need to focus on how to encourage positive teaching cultures and the sharing of best practice, particularly in challenging work contexts.

Tailor made

While leadership programs are often provided in universities, many of these may fail to capture the attention and commitment of key academic leaders. It can be argued that the programs do not support academic leader needs, and that they fail to provide sufficient guidance in the areas that matter. This may be attributed to the more specialised needs of the academic leader needing to be reflected in any programs offered. A more focused support program which explores different elements of leadership and learning theory, depending on the role to be played would be more pertinent to these employees (Blackwell & Blackmore, 2003).

There are other reasons for an academic's likely lack of interest in many leadership programs. The tendency to explore these areas in a vacuum can lead to a perception of irrelevance. The development of programs which enable stronger linkages to the real work context ensure relevance and increase the likelihood of transferral back into work processes. This is most readily achieved by developing action learning frameworks where the participants are guided through a series of work-based reviews and processes to integrate better practices. The action learning process also enables better sharing of both issues and effective practice across the peer network.

A further strategy for building ownership of the programs is to ensure there is strong leadership support for participation. The development of learning contracts with supervisors, the encouragement of leadership recommendation for participation in these programs, and the rewarding of those who make the effort are significant mechanisms in achieving academic recognition of the value of improving academic leadership. Academics need to feel their participation is worthwhile. Promotions, performance reviews and recognition of academic leadership to single out high potential staff needs to be seen as a priority. Leaders wishing to build better teaching need to ensure they reflect these principles in their own leadership practices and philosophy.

More broadly, the federal government focus on teaching performance indicators and the recognition of quality teaching may act as a driver in building stronger recognition of the need for effective teaching leadership. However, this influence will find it hard to achieve a toehold unless universities start to consider the needs of academic leaders more clearly. The dollar value on teaching may act as an initial incentive, but will not see increasing commitment to teaching quality unless it is allied with fundamental culture shifts and clear alignment of values and practices. Academic leadership is critical to this successful transition.


Universities are facing increasingly challenging times as they seek to shift their emphases more firmly onto teaching. The federal moves towards tighter monitoring of outcomes, and the growing concern for educational quality and reputation, has led to an increasing focus on how teaching and learning can be better supported in universities. This paper suggests that the developmental needs of academic leaders should be regarded as a fundamental issue if universities are serious about improving their educational standards. It also argues that universities need to invest in academic development to enable tailored support at specific strategic levels. Academic leadership is critical to the well-being of universities. Unfortunately, it doesn't simply happen. It needs to be developed.


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Contact person: Professor Shelda Debowski
Director, Organisational and Staff Development Services
The University of Western Australia
35 Stirling Highway, Crawley WA 6009
Phone: 08 9380 3845 Fax: 08 9380 1156
Email: Shelda.Debowski@uwa.edu.au

Please cite as: Debowski, S. and Blake, V. (2004). The developmental needs of higher education academic leaders in encouraging effective teaching and learning. In Seeking Educational Excellence. Proceedings of the 13th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 9-10 February 2004. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2004/debowski.html

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Created 21 May 2004. Last revision: 21 May 2004.