Scoping programme leadership: Nailing Jelly to the Wall

The reality of programme leadership in a contemporary university is so complex and challenging that it is a wonder why anyone takes it on!  In the UK sector there is some movement towards recognising such roles in relation to career progression, thus providing motivation, but it is difficult to demonstrate success in the role in the same way as one might research output. Whilst Robinson-Self (2020, p119) points out that programme leaders “are in a position to be instigators of genuine positive change”, he also describes the challenges of defining the role and of negotiating the potential tensions of freely adapting a programme and the constraints of institutional organisation.

We explored these challenges in semi-structured interviews with programme leaders spanning a wide range of programme types and sizes. The interviews captured their satisfaction in acting on their commitment to students and the improvement of their courses, but also the dizzying feeling of juggling plates and having to be a “Jack of many trades”: administration, curriculum design, mediation, resource allocations, timetabling, learning technology, health and wellbeing advice and somehow finding time for their own teaching, assessment and research. We used this and other institutional data, to develop a Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) and Appreciative Inquiry approach that programme leaders can use to problematise and better understand their own situations in order to  develop potential solutions. 

We used our findings to model a better approach to supporting programme leaders across the institution, and to design a series of resources and activities that improve clarity around roles and expectations for programme leadership and improve understanding among programme leaders, their line managers and their colleagues in programme teams. These include resources such as a comprehensive list of operational tasks expected of programme leaders, sample programme management plans for key areas such as assessment, induction, and inclusion, and activities such as staff development sessions showing how programme leadership can provide evidence for promotion applications. 

The long term aim is to help make the role more attractive in terms of career development, but more importantly, more manageable, and less like nailing jelly to the wall.


Inspired by Forsyth, R and Powell, S (2022) Understanding and defining programme leadership in a large institution inLawrence, 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

Dr Rachel Forsyth, PFHEA, now works at Lund University, Sweden. She began her career as a lecturer in physics and then moved into academic development via distance and e-learning production. Her research interests focus on institutional change, particularly in relation to inclusive learning communities and assessment in higher education. As Editor-in-Chief of the Student Engagement in Higher Education Journal, she is an active member of the Researching, Advancing, Inspiring Student Engagement (RAISE) network.

Dr Stephen Powell, PFHEA, is Acting Head of the University Teaching Academy at Manchester Metropolitan University where he is responsible for taught provision and the UKPSF recognition scheme for academic staff. He has worked in education for over 30 years, initially as a teacher in the compulsory school sector, and then in Higher Education. He has particular experience in curriculum design and development. He has developed and managed numerous projects in higher education working with colleagues to develop new taught provision and improve institutions’ educational systems and processes using action research and systems thinking approaches. Blog: https://stephenp.net/

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