Benchmarking leaders

Would VET leaders benefit from the use of a benchmarking tool?

John Mitchell's Inside VET column in Campus Review, 9 June 2008

A report is to be released soon on a national study of leadership in higher education, and the report is likely to prompt the question of whether a similar study would be worthwhile in VET.

The report's lead author, Professor Geoffrey Scott, Pro-Vice Chancellor (Quality) at the University of Western Sydney, spoke about the key findings from the research at the VET Women Leaders Forum conducted in regional Victoria in late May.

The leadership research was funded by the former Carrick Institute, now the Australian Learning and Teaching Council (ALTC), overseen by a national steering committee, and undertaken by Scott and two researchers from ACER, Hamish Coates and Michelle Anderson.

During his presentation at the VET Women Leaders event, Scott called for the research methodology to be applied to the VET sector, particularly as the boundaries between the VET and higher education sectors are starting to loosen.

"The report was so well supported in universities, and it would be straightforward to apply the methodology in VET as well," he said.

Over 500 academic leaders from twenty Australian universities responded to the study's survey, and 600 additional senior university staff participated in the workshops conducted acrossAustraliaand internationally during 2007 and 2008 to review the results of that survey and their implications.

Benchmarking tool

The study identified the capabilities that characterise effective academic leaders in a range of roles and produced resources to develop and monitor these leadership capabilities.

Scott is particularly enthusiastic about one of the resources, an online leadership learning system that will enable even more university staff to voluntarily complete the online survey and compare their results with leaders in the same role. Users will be able to access the common challenges faced in that position and view tips from experienced leaders on how to handle them. ALTC is funding the development of the online system.

"This benchmarking of oneself against over one thousand of your national colleagues in the same role is a very important, unique and practical outcome of the project," said Scott. "And this benchmarking approach could be made available in VET, if the VET sector undertook a similar leadership survey."

Scott's team identified that the core focus for leadership in the current, highly volatile, operating context faced by Australian universities "has to be on achieving effective change management and implementation".

"The external pressures for change in higher education - radical change in many instances - are increasing not decreasing," he said. "Funding per capita is down, competition is up, the pressure to create new sources of income has grown, and institutions are more commercial."

In addition, "students are more forthright about getting value for the money they paid, government scrutiny is increasing, and external quality audits are in place."

The study found that responding promptly and wisely to these change forces by not only formulating high-quality responses but making them work consistently and effectively in practice is "the central challenge faced by universities and their leaders in the highly volatile environment they now face".

Further, it found that this effective management of change is critical "if institutions wish to remain financially viable".

The study also found that many leaders find they have "no room to lead". "They are so busy complying with bureaucratic and reporting procedures, they are so occupied by dealing with complaints, so involved in attending meetings that are poorly chaired or which have no outcome, that they have little time left to lead or to think and operate strategically."

Benefits outweigh costs

Talking with the participants at the VET Women Leaders Forum persuaded Scott that leaders in VET face their own raft of change challenges. Like their higher education counterparts, VET leaders are busy complying with bureaucratic and reporting procedures and spending large parts of their days in meetings, eroding their capacity to lead.

Dialogue at the Women's Forum convinced Scott that VET leaders could benefit from benchmarking themselves against their colleagues from other training providers. However, Scott took note of the comment from the Forum participants that, given the mix of public, community-based and private providers in VET, job titles are much less uniform than they are across universities, so any VET leadership study would need to embrace this variety of titles.

The benefits for VET of undertaking such a comprehensive study of its leaders would far outweigh the costs, said Scott. "The beneficiaries would be, first and foremost, staff and students. And the benchmarking tool could assist the future viability of VET training providers."