Advancing Practice In Academic Development: Chapter 16 Academic development and senior management


Edited by David Baume and Celia Popovic
Routledge – The Staff and Educational Development Series
Publication January 2016

You can order your copy here

Chapter summaries and extracts will on the SEDA Blog over the coming months. (There may be small differences between these and the published versions)

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Chapter 16 – Academic development and senior management

Sally Brown and Shân Wareing 


This chapter reviews the management issues associated with overseeing academic development units and ensuring they help to deliver the institution’s strategic priorities; considers why academic developers in particular can make effective and useful senior managers; explores what kinds of activities academic developers can undertake that support their senior managers in making educational changes; and offers advice to academic developers about moving to more senior roles and to new PVCs on how to manage their first months in post. Links to web sources referenced in this chapter can be found at .



Implementing real change in assessment, learning and teaching in higher education is best effected when academic developers work in close partnership with their senior managers, particularly PVCs, Vice Rectors and Deputy Principals of Higher Education providers (collectively referred to as PVCs hereafter). In this chapter, drawing on our own experiences as both academic developers and PVCs, we offer some perspectives on how to make such partnerships work. Case studies are based on our own experiences and those of others who have similarly joined senior management teams, quotations from whom are derived from personal correspondence with the authors.


It probably goes without saying that working in alignment with the institutional mission and strategy is important for academic developers. This principle became more apparent as our institutional responsibilities increased. Reasons include:

1 The PVC can champion and resource the unit better if the purpose and success of the PVC and the EDU are closely aligned.

2 It is easier to communicate clearly the message and purpose of the unit if they are aligned to institutional strategy. Being unable to align academic development activity with an institutional goal makes communication difficult for the academic development unit, which can lead to its institutional obscurity, compromising its effectiveness.

3 The strategically aligned academic development unit can more easily collaborate  towards the same organisational goals, creating critical mass and supportive networks.


“When I became a Pro Vice-Chancellor, I remember an educational development colleague saying ‘don’t forget us, grappling with the day to day business of teaching and learning at the coal face.’ I try not to. However strategic my thinking needs to be, I try to always validate it against my core personal, professional and pedagogic principles and a dose of common sense. I try to talk to practitioners and, crucially, actively listen to those around me. Most importantly, I try to be authentic and open in my approach. But the key test for any big idea or decision is ‘will this improve things for our students?’ and that test is as true and valid now as when I was a school teacher, lecturer, programme leader and educational developer.” (Dr Claire Taylor, Pro Vice-Chancellor, St Mary’s University, Twickenham, London)


A pro vice-chancellor portfolio usually means managing multiple areas, and the post holder is unlikely to have the same level of expertise in all of them. Such leaders will frequently be managing specialists who know more than they do about that area of responsibility, and this can make building a trusting working relationship a challenge. Specialists and generalists can see the world differently; specialist academic developers may sometimes find their generalist manager lacking in understanding and nuanced judgment in their field. Mutual respect for what each other and a bit of patience enables people committed to an effective working relationship to manoeuvre around this inevitable gap. Being longer in the PVC role also means that, even in areas where you did have expertise, your knowledge of the detail can lose currency. For many managers this loss of expertise can feel like a wrench and a threat to their identity.


What can academic developers do to support institutional change

Based on our experience, below are ten suggestions of ways in which academic developers can support institutional change.

  1. Use academic development principles in institutional change …
  2. Develop shared priorities and goals …
  3. Make sure the relationship works for both of you …
  4. Make your metrics work for you …
  5. Brief people in multiple ways and at multiple levels …
  6. Be a good team player …
  7. Stay calm …
  8. Be the agent of your own destiny …
  9. Use your networks …
  10. Take an institutional perspective …


And finally, for new senior managers …

Some thoughts for those taking senior management roles for the first time,

  • Don’t commit to anything in first six weeks in office …
  • Continue to use all available networks, including the professional organisations like SEDA, ANTF and ICED that may have sustained you in your previous roles …
  • Maintain an external profile and build your internal visibility …
  • Build good work habits, and recognise your own limits in terms of workload …
  • Seek out personal assistance to help you do your job properly …
  • Know your own strengths and weaknesses. Recruit specialist support for the areas you know are not your best …
  • Just like any university position, a PVC or DVC role can be exhausting, frustrating and demoralising, carrying with it much less power to make things happen than those who report to you always recognise. Nevertheless, being a senior manager with influence over learning and teaching can be immensely exciting, a great privilege and a genuine opportunity to make change that can impact directly on students’ learning experiences. Celebrate the positives, enjoy the ride, and make the most of the chance to be an influence for the good.

About the Editors

David Baume is an independent international higher education researcher, evaluator, consultant, staff and educational developer and writer.

Celia Popovic is Director of Teaching Commons at York University, Toronto, Canada.

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