Sharing practical wisdom: creating environments in which programme leadership can flourish

This is the first post in a Blog Series, edited by Sue Morón-García, focusing on programme leadership. Posts are written by contributors to ‘Supporting Course and Programme Leaders in Higher Education’ (Lawrence, Morón-García and Senior, Routledge, 2022) and will be of interest to anyone practising as or supporting the development of programme leaders and leadership in HE.

Programme leaders (PLs) are crucial to higher education success. They commonly have responsibility for the nexus of the student experience: a programme of study. They work in a highly contextualised environment subject to local cultures (institutional, departmental and disciplinary) and are subject to the strategy and management that shape the systems and processes they must navigate. Our early work with programme leaders and educational developers across the UK and discussions at international events indicated a need for evidence-based, practical wisdom and clarity on how to better develop and support the role.

We responded with Supporting Course and Programme Leaders in HE: Practical wisdom for leaders, educational developers and programme leaders. (2022) a collective, international endeavour. It curates ‘practical wisdom’ (hooks, 2010) from those working to develop programme leadership (defining and scoping the role) and programme leaders (supporting the development of those inhabiting the role), as well as from programme leaders themselves. We are grateful for our colleagues’ articulation of what constitutes an environment in which a PL can flourish; the evidence they provide underpins our manifesto for sustainable programme leadership.

The manifesto takes the position that programme leadership is worthy of support and development, that we are not ‘fixing PLs’, and that this is a collaborative mission employing the whole community. It requires all those involved with programme leaders and leadership (senior leaders, programme leaders, heads of department/faculty/school, programme team members, professional and support service staff, educational developers) to ask a number of questions of themselves and the context in which they work. The text concludes with four reflective questions which we expand upon here under the four elements of our manifesto.

1. Organisational culture defines how understanding and reshaping institutional structures (Forsyth & Powell), roles (Hamilton & Donaldson; Maddock, van Harrington, Massa and Love) and culture (Irving-Bell & Morón-García) might support the function of programme leadership. Consider:

  • Is the role of programme leadership understood by programme leaders and all who come into contact with them?
  • What resources (i.e. people, budgets and administrative support) are available to a PL, how are these accessed/managed?
  • Do institutional structures facilitate or inhibit academic agency?

2. Connection and collaboration outlines how programme leader development is best built on the principles of community (O’Dwyer & Sanderson; Scott & Lawrence) and common purpose (Malone and Yorkstone), and co designed with programme leaders (Petrova). Here we recognise a programme team extends beyond the department (Moore; Wood) and PL community beyond an institution (Caddell, Ellis, Haddow, Wilder-Davis). Consider:

  • What opportunities are there for PLs to connect, collaborate and learn from and with other PLs?
  • What fora are available to listen and talk to senior leadership?
  • What opportunities are there for whole programme team development?
  • How do programme teams plan for sustainability i.e. handovers and succession, stakeholder consultations, e.g. are other models of programme leadership possible?

3. Holistic support is the need for multifaceted approaches to PL development (Maddock, Carruthers & van Haeringen), encouraging  integrated CPD (O’Brien, O’Sullivan & Moor) and helping individuals develop leadership skills (Parkin; Johnson & Kalu) and mechanisms (Eve). Consider:

  • How are PLs positioned as central to the effective functioning of a programme?
  • Does the development provided take an inclusive, growth-focused, tailored approach, accounting for the programme leaders’ specific context?
  • What opportunities for professional stretch and strategic work are afforded PLs?

4. Recognition suggests a variety of methods for the reward and recognition of programme leaders (Maddock, Carruthers & van Haeringen; O’Dwyer & Sanderson; Parkin) that might sustain current and inspire forthcoming PLs (Scott & Lawrence). Identifying supporters and inhibitors of PL reward and recognition within an institution’s landscape is a first step. Consider:

  • How is the ‘service’ element of the role valued?
  • How is recognition of PL responsibilities integrated within the academic career pathway? 
  • How does the institution reinforce or signal the PLs’ leadership position (i.e. how are they spoken / messaged about within the institution)?

Over the following weeks 4 authors share aspects of their work with you; we hope you enjoy these insights into the riches on offer.

Dr Sue Morón García, FSEDA, SFHEA, Educational Developer in the Oxford Centre for Academic Enhancement and Development at Oxford Brookes University (@DrSueSoTL)

Dr Jenny Lawrence AFSEDA, PFHEA, NTF, Director of the Oxford Centre for Academic Enhancement and Development at Oxford Brookes University (@jennywahwah)

Dr Rowena Senior, SFHEA, Reader in Higher Education, School of Education, University of Hertfordshire


hooks, b. (2010) Teaching critical thinking: practical wisdom. New York: Routledge

Lawrence J, Moron-Garcia, S and Senior, R (2022) Supporting Course and Programme Leaders in HE: Practical wisdom for leaders, educational developers and programme leaders. Routledge: UK

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