Functional Diversity of Programme Leaders in four
Silke Preymann 1, Tarja Chydenius 2, Martina Gaisch 1, Frank Linde 3,
Mark O’Hara 4
(1) University of Applied Sciences Upper Austria, Austria;
(2) Laurea University of Applied Sciences, Finland;
(3) TH Köln, Germany;
(4) Birmingham City University, United Kingdom
This contribution sets out to discuss programme leaders’ (PLs) tasks and responsibilities at four European
higher education institutions (HEIs). It is sought to carve out their different roles, formal and informal
power and resources with regard to the implementation of diversity management in their institutions. The
four institutions that are the focus of this study are the University of Applied Sciences Upper Austria (FH
Upper Austria), Laurea University of Applied Sciences in Finland (Laurea), Birmingham City University
(BCU) in the UK and TH Cologne (THC) in Germany. Despite seemingly similar functional portfolios, it
became obvious throughout the study that PLs are not only differently embedded in their organisations;
they also operate with differing roles and resources.
In general, PLs at FH Upper Austria are largely responsible for the overall success of their study
programme (in terms of student intake, student success, employability rates). By means of predominantly
informal power they seek to promote a spirit of cooperation amongst their functionally diverse
(administrative and academic staff) team. Although being rooted in academia they need to act as an
interface between the academic and the administrative mind-sets of HEIs.
At BCU - similarly to FH Upper Austria – PLs take responsibility for the day-to-day delivery of a designated
academic programme. They act as advocates for the programme and foster a sense of student community
and ‘belonging’. They work collaboratively with academic colleagues, professional services teams and
students to offer an excellent student learning experience. They also monitor, review and seek to enhance
programme content and delivery.
At TH Cologne, in contrast, PLs role is much more informal. They are appointed by their peers – in some
cases they even appoint themselves – and are not like in Austria officially announced after a lengthy
hearing. PLs tasks at TH Cologne are mainly coordinative and geared towards a smooth and efficient
processing of study programmes.
Similarly, Laurea does not have a designated PL for each study programme. Educational leadership is
shared to support regional strategies and a strong knowledge-based approach in each study programme.
Development managers work closely with several academic specialists – such as degree or module co-
ordinators and heads of student affairs to support a study programmes’ development, student intake,
student success and employability.
Over recent years, a shift from collegial to more entrepreneurial and managerial approaches
has been taking place in the structural foundations of Higher Education Institutions (HEIs)
(Bolden et al. 2008). Thus, HEIs experienced major challenges in developing operational and
organisational structures and decision-making processes. Academic middle management is
central to the effective operation of the vast majority of universities (Scott et al. 2008; Thorpe
and Garside 2017). As Jones (2011, p. 281) states, “there is no way in which the university’s
expectations will be realised if HODs [head of departments] as ‘middle managers’ are unable
or unwilling to put them into action. „However, academic middle managers face an ambiguous
and complex form of leadership, operating in the space between academic and manager
profiles (Murphy and Curtis 2013). This is all the more relevant in view of an increasingly
international and intercultural university environment where PLs are in need to make informed
and context-specific decisions and have an extensive knowledge base of the multitude of
diversity paradigms, their underlying rationales, prescription and focus (Gaisch et al. 2019).
Programme leaders (PLs) - being part of HEI’s lower middle management - play an important
leadership role within universities (Vilkinas and Cartan 2015). Usually, they are academic staff
with responsibility for the delivery of teaching programmes (such as bachelor or master
degrees) within their HEI. They most often have a broad range of responsibilities. First, they
are accountable for the academic health of their programmes and need to ensure that their
programmes are of high quality and that they meet any educational standards that are set.
Thus, course management, curriculum development and staff timetabling are central in their
role description. In addition, they inevitably come into contact with the personal experiences of
students, and therefore need to understand the student perspective (Murphy and Curtis 2013)
and ensure positive learning outcomes for students.
Second, they need to work with external bodies such as secondary schools, professional
bodies and employing organisations. Consequently, marketing and liaising with key
stakeholders is central in their daily activities. As the work at the frontline of HEIs, they are a
hub linking central stakeholders like students, lecturers, central services, industry as well as
representatives from the vocational fields.
Third, they need to provide leadership to those teaching on the programme and to professional
staff that assist with the delivery of the programme (Vilkinas and Cartan 2015). They have
influence on their colleagues (both teaching staff and administrative/ support personnel)
although they often dispose of only informal authority to seek out and secure support for the
implementation of high quality teaching and learning. Hence, programme leaders do not have
the authority that comes with official line management responsibilities, and either lead staff
without official power or make use of their line manager’s support (Vilkinas and Cartan 2015).
Additional to their leadership and management position, PLs may also operate as researchers
and teachers (Ehrenstorfer et al 2015).
Overall, a PLs role is demanding and displays challenging characteristics. It is frequently not
clearly specified or even documented, and may not be rewarded or well resourced (Vilkinas
and Cartan 2015). As PLs different roles commonly are in competition with each other, even
serious role conflicts may occur (Ehrenstorfer et al 2015). Existing literature on PLs roles
highlights such ambiguity as a major source of stress and cause of inefficiency (Murphy and
All in all, PLs role still remains largely in the shadows. There is a plethora of research on the
role of academic leadership generally, and some research devoted to middle management
incorporating heads of department and deanery level (Murphy and Curtis 2013; Floyd 2016).
Hardly any research deals with leadership on the study programme level. In addition, as
programmes vary widely in terms of size and complexity, there is little equity or comparability
between programme leader roles (Murphy and Curtis 2013). This is even more so, when
different institutional as well as different national backgrounds come into play.
This study aims to gain insight into current practices and perceptions of leadership, roles and
skills of PLs at four European HEIs. Despite their different national background, these
institutions are highly comparable: which take part in a current Erasmus+ project. Three of
these organisations are Universities of Applied Sciences. The UK institution – a post 1992
university - became a fully fledged university due changes in the UK governance systems. As
a former polytechnic it follows a similar mission as the first three mentioned universities of
To find answers on PLs key roles and tasks within their institutions we opted for an exploratory
qualitative approach (Bryman 2012). Three to six PLs discussed their roles in four focus group
discussions, which took place between November 2018 and February 2019 at the four HEIs.
In our focus groups we encouraged participants to elaborate on their experiences of HE
leadership, the nature of their work and activities involved.
3 PLS DIFFERENT ROLES AND RESPONSIBILITIES
This paper sets out to discuss PLs roles in four different European HEIs, namely University of
Applied Sciences Upper Austria (Austria), TH Cologne (Germany), Birmingham City University
(UK) and Laurea UAS (Finland). It is sought to carve out PLs different roles, formal and informal
power and resources with regard to the implementation of diversity management in their
3.1 PL’s role at Birmingham City University (BCU)
At BCU PLs take responsibility for the day to day delivery of a designated academic
programme. They act as advocates for their programme and foster a sense of student
community and ‘belonging’. They work collaboratively with academic colleagues, professional
services teams and students to offer an excellent student learning experience. They also
monitor, review and seek to enhance programme content and delivery.
More precisely, PLs responsibilities refer to (1) leadership, (2) programme management and
programme delivery, (3) programme assessment, programme evaluation and quality
PLs are meant to promote a spirit of cooperation and ownership amongst the teaching
team. In addition, it is up to them to enable academic and administrative colleagues to
understand their contribution to the effective delivery of the programme. Finally, it lies
within their responsibility to encourage excellence in performance and attainment by
celebrating success amongst staff and students alike.
Programme management and delivery:
PLs need to ensure that all aspects of the programme comply with the academic and
institutional regulations and that the programme learning outcomes are fit for purpose and
that module learning outcomes are aligned to them. Thus, inclusive practices plays a
central role in the effective delivery of the study programme. Furthermore, PLs need to
identify staffing needs and allocate staff to modules on the programme. It is within their
responsibility to ensure the course timetables, assessment schedules and other aspects
of programme organisation are reviewed prior to the commencement of the academic year
to improve the overall programme delivery and to deliver an excellent and inclusive student
Programme assessment, programme evaluation and quality assurance:
PLs liaise with administrative staff to ensure that examination and assessment issues are
managed appropriately. Their efforts contribute to a high quality student experience by
identifying opportunities for improved practices based on student feedback, module
evaluation/performance data. They lead periodic programme reviews in line with university
procedures and act as a representative of the university during accreditation procedures.
Finally, they monitor student progress, achievement and retention by making full use of all
3.2 PL’s role at University of Applied Sciences Upper Austria
Similarly to the UK case, Austrian PLs assume a broad range of different functions.
Unsurprisingly, their responsibilities strongly refer to (1) the successful management of their
study programme. However, their role has a strong strategic impetus as well. PLs are meant
to (2) bridge the study programmes strategic priorities with the institution’s strategic focus.
Finally, they act as (3) intermediary between study programme and the external/ professional
Management of their study programme:
PLs are the main decision-makers in their own study programmes and act as strategic
leaders as well as operational managers. That is, PLs take on both strategic responsibilities
and more operational duties. They are held responsible for the academic health of
curriculum of their study programme. Therefore, they promote its content-related and
peadagogical development and thus need to take inclusive practice into account. They
need to ensure that relevant module and programme specifications are maintained. All in
all, their duties comprise tasks around the whole student life cycle including outreach
activities and targeting of non-traditional students. Overall, PLs point to three most
important tasks: improvement of course design and course delivery, consideration or even
recognition of prior learning and orientation along industrial/ vocational fields demands.
Bridging the study programme’s strategic priorities with the institution’s strategic focus:
This function encompasses the alignment of priorities such as employability, student
engagement and student success with the institutional level.
Intermediary between study programme and the external/ professional world:
In terms of external relations, Austrian PLs highlight the need to keep their programmes
up to vocational field’s requirements. Aspiration/ claiming high employability are inherent
in UAS Upper Austria’s identity. Thus, good agreement with industry and vocational fields
is rated as major success factor. They are dealing with partners from industry, with policy
makers, funding agencies and other external stakeholders.
3.3 PL’s role at Technische Hochschule Köln, Cologne University of Applied
Programme leadership at TH Cologne is not an institution-wide defined task. In some faculties,
PLs come into charge by election in others more informally. They are always part of teaching
staff and usually do not have any assistants. In most cases, a reduction of their teaching load
Only in rare cases, a job description exists covering the following aspects which can be
summarized as management of study programmes.
(1) Conception, implementation and further development of study programmes.
(2) Planning, organization, and evaluation of the curriculum.
(3) Conducting accreditation processes.
(4) Running joint public relation activities together with faculty management and student
(5) Informing staff about key figures of the study programme.
More often PL’s job descriptions at TH Köln are not clearly specified yet. If their responsibilities
rest unstructured, they often take on a wide range of tasks, such as:
(1) Giving information and advice on the study programme and on the different courses
(2) Supporting first semester students.
(3) Offering emotional support.
(4) Coordinating assessment schedules.
(5) Dealing with conflicts between students and staff.
(6) Maintaining contact with professional services.
(7) Connecting students with alumni.
It seems recommendable to provide PLs with clear role expectations. That would on the one
hand protect them from getting into a task overload by being responsible for “everything”. On
the other hand, this would bear the chance to achieve a more systematic exchange with
professional services and even connect them more closely with strategic goals of their
3.4 PL’s role at Laurea University of Applied Sciences
There are no directly equivalent “Programme leaders” in charge of sole degree programmes.
Laurea’s organization is managed and organized as one unified institution. Educational
responsibilities are lead on the institutional level by the Vice President, Education, and the
Educational leadership team. Student-centeredness as a leading guideline, strategic
development and decision-making processes are impregnated by collective reflection and
discussions with many stakeholders, including students and external partners. For example,
directors responsible for certain areas (such as pedagogical development, internationalization
and degrees in English language, teaching and guidance, student well-being) work
collaboratively in development groups. These regularly meeting groups are composed of
functionally diverse representatives from the academic and administrative staff, and work
closely with work-life and regional stakeholders. A student representative is included in most
of the development groups.
The aim of the organizational structure is to enable continuous, systematic and agile
development of Laurea’s activities. In Finland, Universities of Applied Sciences (UAS) have an
important role in regional development, and thus Laurea’s management model is based on
local units in charge of the degree programmes. The local units are supported by a common
service unit, RDI activities and regional development experts facilitating the co-operation
between worklife, and learning and teaching.
Academic programmes are developed, lead, managed and reviewed bearing in mind the
regional development role and drawing on a strong student-centered mindset. Development
managers would be the closest equivalent to middle managers called “Programme leaders” in
many other European institutions. However, decision-making is often shared among several
experts. The emphasis in development managers’ responsibilities is on leading and supporting
teams to enable optimal learning experiences for the students. Development managers are in
charge of staff allocation, tactical planning, and share day-to-day programme management
with degree coordinators, module responsibles, appointed lecturers and administrative staff.
Quality assurance and pedagogical degree content development is shared with development
managers and degree coordinators. The shared roles and responsibilities are detailed in a
Overall, all management and staff members are empowered to act flexibly and in a self-oriented
way. Shared leadership throughout the organization enables flexible development and
pedagogical choices. The flipside is, obviously, that role and responsibility boundaries may be
perceived confusing, and self-oriented activities may lead to inconsistency.
There is no appointed role for managing diversity or enhancing inclusion at the institutional
level. The topic has not been regularly discussed or developed systematically. Diversity
management is rather perceived to be included in the responsibilities within each area of
expertise. Awareness of and competence for managing diversity and enhancing inclusion is
thus very varied within the organization. However, high flexibility in study paths (day-time
studies, part-time studies, online degrees, open university access) have paved the way for
inclusivity by enabling students to choose a personally suitable way to study.
PLs (or development managers in Finland) are important decision-makers in their academic
programmes and have the capacity to adapt their curricula to contemporary needs.
Additionally, they dispose of formal and/or informal authority and thus have influence on their
colleagues (both teaching staff and administrative / support personnel) and can highlight the
benefits of an inclusive approach. As PLs are in most cases accountable for the academic
health of their programmes they are meant to have a keen interest in articulating and delivering
effective inclusion and diversity management strategies in the interests of all those involved
(tutors, students, central teams) as well as for their university as a whole. Despite some
international differences in terms of job profile and definitional scope, the influence of PLs
remains uncontested. They have a substantial effect on students and academic and
administrative staff and can therefore encourage genuine across-the-curriculum
implementation of diversity management measures that go beyond stand-alone courses
Still, insight into roles, tasks and requirements of higher education middle managers are
lacking. This comes even truer, when relating to their tasks and responsibilities within diversity
management and inclusion.
This contribution draws from the EnhanceIDM project which is co-funded by the Erasmus+
programme of the European Union. The European Commission support for the production of
this publication does not constitute an endorsement of the contents which reflects the views
only of the authors, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be
made of the information contained therein.
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