A guest blog post for #HEBlogswap by Dr Emma Kennedy, Senior Lecturer in HE Learning and Teaching, University of Greenwich

After a few years of programme leader experience, about 18 months ago I graduated to leading a large programme, and am finally gaining the space to reflect on the experience. Inspired by Aitken and O’Carroll’s (2020) comparison of programme leaders to ‘blindfolded tightrope-walkers’, I decided to highlight three key contradictions I experienced as programme leader, and offer some tentative advice on how to navigate them.

  1. You are the link between your students and the system

As a programme leader, you play a key role in linking up individual students, staff (and modules) with the overall systems of the university. It’s important to consider how you can play this role most effectively. In my experience, it’s about putting yourself in the position of whatever department you’re liaising with. If you’re liaising with student records or admissions, do you need to include the ID number of the student you’re talking about? If it’s with the colleagues administering the exam board, you might make their life easier by including a cohort number. This sounds quite dry – but it can really smooth the way and also enhance relationships as people notice that you’re considering their needs.

The other way around – communicating to your students and fellow teachers about central departments – is equally important. You will know things that your fellow teachers don’t, so make sure you pass on what they need to know, and use your prior experience (if you have it) to give them a realistic sense of what’s possible. Have a programme team meeting regularly to establish shared goals and ways of working – this helps them connect with one another as well as you. With students, too, you can manage their expectations and make other people’s lives easier. For example, ask them to email the IT Service Desk if they need technical help – but making sure they know the opening hours, and advising them not to make a last-minute call if they can avoid it, makes your colleagues’ lives easier (and also makes it more likely that students can get the help they need).

…but you can’t shield them from it.

Know the limits of your power and of your responsibility – be sure to direct to sources of info that those teams can update, not your own, and be prepared to edit your own info – don’t feel responsible for areas you can’t control and don’t promise what you can’t guarantee.

Being a programme leader can feel like having all the responsibility but none of the power: everyone comes to you with their problems, but it’s largely your job to refer them to other people. Make your peace with this position but be mindful that not everything is your personal responsibility. You may get a lot of requests for support, but this isn’t because people think you’re all-powerful: it’s because they know your name. Your job is to provide a handy point of contact and then to pass people on to the people, or departments they need.

  1. Always be positive, compassionate and constructive

Negative things will happen. But however annoyed you are at the time, remember that you don’t know what is going on for students or staff – the very worst thing is to be visibly annoyed with someone, then find out they were going through something terrible. If something is important, simply stating the consequences is enough. This doesn’t mean lowering standards or giving praise you don’t believe in, it means you don’t insert your feelings in situations where they won’t help. As noted above, programme leaders interact with a lot of different university systems and teams. Sometimes things will go wrong, because people are human: be understanding, be flexible, and work with them to find a solution. Moreover, if you lead a programme for long enough (approximately five minutes, in my case) you’ll make a mistake yourself that causes work for someone else, and you’ll be hoping the teams you work with extend that compassion back to you.

…but point out stuff in the system that isn’t working.

As programme leader you get a unique perspective – you are often the person people bring problems to, as well as having a foothold in teaching. You see how the programme was designed and how it’s working in practice, and the difference between the two. Have the courage to advocate for your programme’s staff and students, and to suggest changes where you can see they would help. When you’re suggesting changes, always distinguish between the system and the staff carrying it out – and be mindful that you might not have the full story. Nevertheless, you can give them a valuable insight into what’s working and not working, so don’t be afraid to give that insight.

  1. Set a good example

This contradiction is inspired by Being the Boss, a book on management that I found had some pretty interesting lessons even for a programme leader with no direct reports. Linda Hill and Kent Lineback write that one of the key reasons people respect a leader is that they show competence at the job – so don’t let being a programme leader be an excuse to neglect keeping up to date with your teaching and module leadership. Set an example in terms of communication, inclusivity, engagement – whatever you want the people teaching on your programme to prioritise. They’ll prioritise what they see you prioritising.

….but be mindful that this isn’t enough.

Hill and Lineback note a key paradox of management: that often the people who are most competent ‘don’t know how to deal with people who lack their motivation’. You may be used to just being a great teacher, but as programme leader you need to help others do the same – you can’t do it for them, and simply setting an example may not be sufficient. Hill and Lineback note that a team – as opposed to several people simply doing the same thing – requires both ‘a common and worthwhile purpose’ and ‘specific and challenging team goals based on that purpose’. (138) Does your programme team have these things? If you sat down the teachers on your programme, would they agree on the purpose and goals? Make the time to consider and agree some goals as a team, and think about how the team could work towards them. You’ll be competing with people’s other commitments and goals – but if you don’t set any purpose or goals, you risk their work on your programme becoming subordinate to their own goals. As noted above, programme leaders have a great perspective with elements of breadth and depth, so you’re well placed to set goals that will have an impact on your students’ experience: don’t be afraid to share those goals, and the reasons behind them, with the programme team.

Programme leadership in higher education is full of contradictions, probably more than I’ve been able to fit in here. However, we’ve looked at three key ones:

  1. You are the link between your students and the university system, but you can’t shield them from the system or its consequences.
  2. Always be positive, compassionate and constructive, but point out what’s not working.
  3. Set a good example, but be mindful that this isn’t enough.

As with so many leadership roles, programme leadership is a balancing act. You’re dealing with students and staff who may have diverse and contradictory needs and wants; you’re also limited by the practicalities of the university system, including limits on resource and strict regulations. Don’t let that be disheartening, however. As with all challenging roles, programme leadership can be an exciting journey, and what you do can have a real impact on student (and staff) experience. Perhaps there is some light coming through that blindfold after all.

Works Cited

Gillian Aitken & Sinéad O’Carroll (2020) Academic identity and crossing

boundaries: the role of the Programme Director in postgraduate taught programmes, Higher

Education Research & Development, 39:7, 1410-1424, DOI: 10.1080/07294360.2020.1737658

Linda Hill & Kent Lineback (2011). Being the Boss: the 3 imperatives for becoming a great leader. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.