What is the role of university leaders in the efficiency agenda?

Efficiency concept graphic
Photograph: 123RF

The way we think and talk about efficiency needs to evolve, says Dr Mark Pegg of the Leadership Foundation.

At a leadership event recently, I heard both sides of the story.  One group argued to achieve transformational change, leaders in universities must create a level of urgency and awareness to shake staff out of established habits and behaviours in living and working.  If they don’t see a ‘burning platform’, they said, it is too tempting to sit tight, go on doing what they are doing.  Why leave the comfort zone when you see no reason to change?

The other group were against this – they argued effective leaders should create and communicate a strong and compelling vision for the future, to focus maximum energy on motivating everyone to contribute their talent and skill to achieving change.  That they should create the conditions where people want to change and do it for themselves.  To achieve change from the bottom up will be so much stronger and more enduring than top down.

It sounded a little like McGregor ‘s theory X and theory Y thinking – that people are inherently lazy and only do things because they have to or are inherently ambitious and do things because they want to.

Actually, I am in favour of sounding the alarm and waving a flag to get everyone’s attention – that we need to be more efficient, to do nothing is not an option, but I am also a strong believer that once you have got everyone’s attention it is much, much better to set out a positive prospectus for the future, even if that involves difficulty and hardship along the way.

British universities ought to be good at pursuing an efficiency agenda.  They have a culture of creativity and innovation, a strong desire to enquire and explore. This is how they got to be good in the first place.  The efficiency agenda ought to be argued from a position of strength:  we are at the top, we are admired globally.  If we nurture the culture of continuous improvement, it is how we stay there.  What we do need to do is encourage awareness of this kind of thinking and give efficiency a priority.

Many university staff express strong disapproval of the prevailing ‘theory X’ style of thinking in HM Treasury that universities are inefficient, do not use their resources well and do not give their students value for money in exchange for the fees they charge. That universities can do more of the things society wants them to do with what they have now or less simply by being more efficient.   Even if we oppose this narrow view, we need to know it is a strong perception, be prepared and adapt to address it.

Higher education likes evidence based decision making.  The efficiency debate is not just about profit and loss or the balance sheet, although hard data helps.  It is also about learning effective ways of changing working practices, adopting new technology, and changing leadership and behavioural  styles, engaging with people to encourage them to embrace their own ways of doing things better than before.

The Leadership Foundation is investing in more thinking, evidence and practice in research in support for efficiency in:

  • Facilitation to give more support for vital discussion & debate
  • Advocacy – more organising and speaking at events
  • Teaching – to build into our developmental programmes and consulting

And to build efficiency and continuous improvement into the change agenda, the Leadership Foundation will focus on leadership skills:

  • Thought Leadership – new thinking, using behavioural economics and developing a new language for efficiency
  • Transferability – best practice from higher education & other sectors
  • Engagement – creating a culture where efficiency is part of what we do
  • Awareness of efficiency  – celebrate best practice from across the sector
  • Build efficiency into the change agenda – leadership programmes and consultancy

The language we use has to change.  This is not a narrow focus on added value and cost savings, but everything to do with smarter, stronger, sharper universities for the future.

Dr Mark Pegg is chief executive of the Leadership Foundation

A version of this content also appears on the Guardian higher education management and administration hub.