• Open Access

Leadership Values, Trust and Negative Capability: Managing the Uncertainties of Future English Higher Education



The complex leadership attribute of ‘negative capability’ in managing uncertainty and engendering trust may be amongst the qualities enabling institutions to cope with multiple recent government policy challenges affecting English higher education, including significant increases in student fees. Research findings are reported on changes in leadership values, trust and organisational cultures in higher education during the current ‘age of austerity’. Data from university experts, managers and academics in semi-structured interviews were informed by questionnaires (n = 16), online surveys (n = 121) and a focus group (n = 6). Findings indicated that values-based leadership characterised by skilful ‘negative capability’ is now needed in English higher education. ‘Negative capability’ is defined as the ability to resist the ‘false necessity’ of deterministic solutions in building staff trust to cope proactively with ambiguity and change. This capability is needed for academic leaders to maintain their role in shaping the enduring purposes of higher education during a recession, both in England and in the wider international environment.

Gradual erosion of trust: an uncertain future for English higher education

It can be argued that current multiple uncertainties about the future of English higher education may be leading to a gradual erosion of trust in the values, collegial ethos and civic role of universities. It also could be argued that they are not and that nothing much has really changed. This paper considers evidence from higher education respondents in querying whether the professional autonomy and values of older Humboldtian scholarly and collegial understandings of the role of universities as a higher public good are gradually fading in an era of marketisation and that, in this, trust is gradually being lost within and in English higher education.

The paper cites findings from current higher education research to consider whether a growing culture of managerialism, accountability, suspicion and instrumentalism (O'Neill, 2002; Deem and Brehony, 2005) is eroding trust in the values, collegial ethos and civic purposes of universities (Elton, 2008). Following discussion of the current context of higher education policies on student fee increases in England and related policy debates in selected prior literature, the paper reports the views of selected experienced higher education staff respondents. The paper aims to consider issues relating to leadership values and trust in the management of higher education in England at a time of sectoral uncertainty. The research analysed the views of selected respondents in England and across the UK, cross-checking these findings with a small number of international representatives to consider the extent to which the agile and innovative leadership approach of ‘negative capability’, acting as a protective ‘boundary filter’ for organisations, may be the ‘fittest’ response for English higher education leadership at this time.

Shifting the burden of debt in an age of austerity

In a world that Middlehurst argues has been ‘utterly changed’ (Middlehurst, 2010, p. 17), at a time of ‘maximum uncertainty’ (Bradwell, 2009, p. 63) during the current ‘age of austerity’ for universities (Watson, 2011) as a result of reduced UK public funding in higher education, increasing student fees (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), 2011) and the wider influence of the current global financial recession, leadership values and organisational cultures in English higher education are now under pressure as never before. The future full effects of the current fee increases and policy changes in higher education are uncertain. However, what is not in doubt is that the higher education environment in England is experiencing a significant shift in funding policies at a time of increased global financial challenges and ever-demanding calls for accountability and measurement to key performance indicators. Government policies that shift the burden of debt to students and place increasing emphasis on the competitive ‘market’ of higher education are creating escalating stratification in English higher education, while both institutions and students are struggling to cope with the impact of these major changes.

The effects of the deepening global financial crisis since 2007–08, threats to the Eurozone in 2009–12 (Hazelkorn and Massaro, 2011), pressure on public funding and resultant significant cuts to higher education budgets are changing the environment in which English higher education institutions operate in radical, unforeseen ways. At such a time, higher education leaders, staff and students face significant strain in coping effectively with uncertainty about funding from future student recruitment. This uncertainty is simultaneously combined with multiple competitive challenges to survival, innovation and growth.

Evidence from leadership research study

A recent study on leadership values, trust and organisational cultures in English higher education during the current ‘age of austerity’ collected data from higher education respondents in semi-structured interviews and short emailed interview questionnaires (n = 16), and two versions of a longer online web survey via surveymonkey (n = 121) as well as a face to face focus group (n = 6). Interviewees and interviewee questionnaire respondents are labelled alphabetically (Interviewee A, B, etc.) below, while the web survey respondents are labelled with numbers (Survey Respondent 1, 2, etc.) and the version of the survey answered (#1 or #2). Responses from higher education experts, senior managers and academics were invited to consider views on whether and how leadership values and organisational cultures were changing in the current policy climate. The paper provides an evidence-based consideration of these issues in a difficult recessionary environment in England, in the context of cuts to funding and large increases in student fees. Data from higher education respondents are considered to investigate what may be happening to leadership values and to trust in English higher education in the current challenging era, when planning for budgets is in doubt, the role of private providers is providing new competition (Brown, 2010) and even the status of existing and new universities and colleges in their current numbers and varieties is a debatable issue (Brown, 2011; Tight, 2011), given the potential for institutional failures and mergers.

A critical action-research approach (Zuber-Skerritt, 1992) was followed. This approach aimed to investigate critically the views of selected respondents on the ways in which issues relating to leadership values and trust were affecting the leadership and management of higher education in England at a time of increasing uncertainty. The action research process was emancipatory and participative, aiming to explore and critique selected responses to the current higher education situation to improve both understanding and effective practice in leadership and trust-building in the sector where possible. The emancipatory approach was informed by Unger's (1998) views on ‘negative capability’ (see below). The project involved a small research team of four academics, assisted by two early career researchers. Data collection involved documentary search and review, semi-structured interviews, email responses to a questionnaire on leadership, responses to an online survey and notes from several sessions of a confidential forum on trust and leadership in higher education. A literature review, the identification of theoretical perspectives and emerging themes were complemented by semi-structured investigative interviews with available key informants. University Research Ethics permission was granted for research into ‘trust and leadership'.

Interviewees included a range of senior experts on higher education and leadership. Selected respondents represented different kinds of institutions and subject disciplines. A qualitative analysis of interview notes was carried out by the research team. Semi-structured interviews were conducted in 2011–12 with vice-chancellors, senior managers, professors of higher education and other subjects, middle managers and both full-time and part-time lecturers from different institutions across England at ‘élite’ pre-1992 (older) and ‘mass’ post-1992 (newer; ‘modern’) higher education institutions. Data were collected from respondents in selected wider UK, Australian and US universities, to cross-check findings and consider the international resonance of themes emerging from English perspectives. Interviews lasted between 25–90 minutes and were recorded in digital audio and/or note form.

The analysis of selected themes emerging from the interviews brought together the views of senior and middle-management leaders and other staff at a range of levels in higher education, building on experience from many years of research into leadership, management and governance in higher and post-compulsory education (McNay, 2005, 2007; Bone and McNay, 2006; Jameson, 2006, 2008). Notes from a small ongoing focus group of academic staff who met during 2009–12 also informed the study. The meetings of this group were confidential and its proceedings were facilitated by a specialist from the Tavistock Institute, following a research seminar on ‘trust and leadership’ held in 2009, organised with the Leadership Academy of South England. This focus group met once or twice a term for three years (2009–12) to discuss in-depth issues relating to trust and leadership in higher education.

An earlier online survey was extended to consider values-based leadership, trust and organisational cultures in higher education. The survey provided both qualitative and quantitative data: findings were triangulated with interview data and analysed using thematic codes in an interactive conversational process. Emerging qualitative codes and themes were drawn up to inform the final research report. The researchers collected together themes from the interviews and discussed these, triangulating them to tease out the findings alongside emailed notes, findings from the literature, survey responses and forum notes. Themes were summarised into recommendations for leaders and managers, based on respondent views. Selected emerging themes and responses are presented here. It is recognised that the views represented are a partial, sketchy, albeit hopefully useful, collection of insights from an inevitably limited range of experienced higher education respondents. Amongst the fragments of responses collected, however, a coherent picture began to emerge on the key themes explored within the paper.

Negative capability, trust and leadership

As discussed by Simpson et al. (2002) ‘negative capability’ was first described by Keats in a letter to his brothers in 1817 with reference to the capability of a poet to exist in a state of ‘uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’ (Keats and Scott, 2005, p. xxii). Applied to leadership, Simpson et al., citing Handy (1989), noted that the concept of ‘negative capability’ includes the ‘capacity to sustain reflective inaction’ to … ‘create an intermediate space that enables one to continue to think in difficult situations…to create the conditions for fresh insight’ (Simpson et al., 2002, pp. 1210–1211). Inspired by the work of the psychoanalyst Bion (1965), Simpson and French (2006) took their analysis further in relation to the capacity of leaders to ‘think in the present moment’ and, in dealing adeptly with the present, to employ ‘patience and the ability to tolerate frustration and anxiety’ (Simpson and French, 2006, p. 245). Arguably, if leaders are able to focus, listen, act with discretion and skilfully contain negative emotions arising from uncertainties rather than rush to implement imprudently deterministic solutions, they are more likely to inspire trust within their institutions. This interpretation also echoes the philosophical, social and political theories of Unger (1998), who argued for the imaginative plasticity of alternative creative solutions, challenging the ‘false necessity’ of pre-determined social, economic and political structures.

The above reflections on negative capability are derived from the analysis of interviewee comments about the best way for leaders and managers to handle the current challenges in higher education. During the interviews, Interviewee J, a senior expert in higher education policy research, noted that leaders needed to ensure they did not rush to respond with immediate desperation to every higher education policy change. Instead, leaders should ‘take a medium to long-term view: you cannot second guess government policy. It is turbulent and incoherent’ so ‘creating a space for and the need for a clear institutional identity was important’. Within the space that leaders could create in higher education, respondents felt that trust is crucial. Interviewee G, a senior higher education professor, noted that ‘transparent, open, collective decisions helped develop and maintain trust at all levels’ in higher education and that ‘things work best when leadership is distributed and the leader group is strongly linked to the academic and administrative community’.

The decline of deference: a relative erosion of trust in authorities

Trust is a relational psychological state (Mayer et al., 1995; Dirks and Ferrin, 2001; Jameson, 2010) and a form of shared social capital (Tsai and Ghoshal, 1998) that is of significant importance in higher education. Trust involves voluntary willingness to act with faith and confidence in others despite multiple uncertainties of future outcomes regarding vulnerability and risk. The role of trust in organisations has been extensively researched in leadership and management literature (Mayer et al., 1995; Dirks and Ferrin, 2001; Grudzewski et al., 2008; Jameson and Andrews, 2008). Kouzes and Posner (1993) observed that the trustworthiness and credibility of managers relies on values-oriented leadership distinguished by integrity, honesty, high standards of moral conduct and emotional intelligence, while O'Neill (2002) and Grudzewski et al. (2008) emphasised the essential role of trust in every aspect of organisational functioning.

During past decades, a relative erosion of trust in authorities and in the public sector has been highlighted in the UK (Jameson, 2010): Interviewee J was amongst numerous respondents who observed that there was ‘a general loss of trust penetrating universities and that leaders were contaminated by association’. This was despite an escalation in monitoring and external accountability of and by public sector leadership and institutions. As Interviewee J noted, ‘there is now more emphasis on accountability, and the machinery is there’. Ironically, however, despite higher levels of scrutiny and supposed openness and transparency in the public sector, including higher education, it seems suspicion is on the increase, as O'Neill observed, despite her scepticism about quantitative measurements of ‘crises of trust’ (O'Neill, 2002, p. 45).

Page (2006) reported a rise both in scepticism and in scrutiny of the credibility of authorities in the UK, based on Ipsos MORI social demographic and organisational trends data for 2004–05, noting that ‘[There is g]reater trust in a nonrational approach to make sense of the world’. This trend towards the non-rational is accompanied by a UK rise in anxiety, an erosion in government credibility and increased feelings of remoteness from central institutions (Page, 2006, p. 19). As Interviewee J noted, there is a general ‘decline of deference in society’. In the ‘bear market’ of current public sector cuts, government and media scandals and cynicism about leadership and trust in public life, such issues are increasingly important regarding the extent to which academic leadership in universities is trusted, or not, to perform freely.

Excessive increases in performance monitoring

In 2002, in the BBC Reith Lectures Series A Question of Trust, O'Neill expressed concerns regarding excessive increases in reductive performance monitoring, unintelligent accountability and scrutiny of public sector professionals in the UK, saying:

…we need more intelligent forms of accountability…to focus less on grandiose ideals of transparency and rather more on limiting deception. Do we really gain from heavy-handed forms of accountability? Do we really benefit from indiscriminate demands for transparency? I am unconvinced. I think we may undermine professional performance and standards in public life by excessive regulation, and that we may condone and even encourage deception in our zeal for transparency. (O'Neill, 2002, pp. 88–89)

This paper draws from the evidence of data from higher education respondents to consider whether a state of cautious, watchful and reflective management of uncertainty: an increase in negative capability, combined with trust-building behaviours and values-based leadership, is needed now rather than increased emphasis on performance management and accountability. Respondents argued that this kind of measured, flexible approach is an appropriate leadership response at a time of already ‘excessive regulation’ in the public sector. The context for this is that, in the current recession in England, with public sector spending and student numbers undergoing significant cuts, there are multiple uncertainties about the future of higher education, as a result of recent policy changes.

Policy changes in the funding of English higher education

In October, 2010, the Browne Review (BIS, 2010) was published, recommending major changes to the funding of higher education in England, in response to concerns about its long-term financing. The review proposed ‘a radical departure from the existing way in which higher education institutions are financed’ (BIS, 2010, p. 3), with a reduction in state funding, an increased emphasis on financing of higher education by student repayment of loans following graduation, an emphasis on sustainability and choice by students as regards place of study in a competitive higher education market. These changes aimed to secure funding for a long-term future for higher education, to stimulate greater competition between institutions and propose a student- or market-focused system for an expansion of the higher education system.

Shortly after the publication of the Browne Review, the UK coalition government announced its Comprehensive Spending Review in October, 2010, including plans for a huge reduction of around 80 per cent in the state-funded higher education budget of £2.9 billion by 2014–15 and for significant increases in tuition fees to ‘a basic threshold of £6,000 a year’ while ‘in exceptional circumstances there would be an absolute limit of £9,000’, from 2012–13 (Hansard, 2010).

In June, 2011, the long-awaited government White Paper (BIS, 2011) was published, outlining the rationale for the government's policies for ‘reforming’ higher education. The policies went far to reify the Comprehensive Spending Review decision to shift the long-term burden of funding higher education onto students, away from the state, raising the cap on student fees to £9,000 per annum in England, with unlimited recruitment of student numbers for those with higher grades and funding incentives for institutions agreeing to charge £7,500 fees or less a year. These measures were designed to cope with the uncomfortable fact, contrary to governmental expectation, that most higher education institutions had already declared they would charge the maximum fee of £9,000, as the National Union of Students’ response to the White Paper outlined: ‘The government has planned very badly and got into a position where there is widespread concern about whether the higher education budget can be balanced, as a result of institutions charging much higher fees than expected’ (NUS, 2011, p. 8). Yet the government claimed these new policies were ‘progressive’ (Hansard, 2010) and were intended to create a ‘more dynamic sector in which popular institutions can grow and where all universities must offer a good student experience to remain competitive’ (BIS, 2011, paragraph 7).

While some interest groups were strongly in favour of the changes, significant criticism of the new policies also emerged gradually from many quarters. Amongst those challenging the assumptions of the Browne, Comprehensive Spending Review and White Paper reforms, Thompson and Bekhradnia (2010, 2011), Callender (2010) and Collini (2011) pointed out that the Comprehensive Spending Review reforms cost more than they saved. Thompson and Bekhradnia (2011) summed up responses, saying these had been ‘mixed’.

A coalition of interest groups, including the Campaign for the Public University, actively criticised the White Paper in a challenging alternative paper (Holmwood and McGettigan, 2011). This response starkly analysed multiple contradictions in the policies, describing these as ‘a set of sweeping, ill-considered reforms that will destabilise and threaten’ the ‘excellence’ of UK higher education. Some analysts found that the White Paper contained inherent contradictions, seeming simultaneously both to praise and to undermine the existing higher education system. A small number of others, however, welcomed the proposals if they felt their institutions could gain more funding (Catcheside, 2011).

Needing to plan despite uncertainties of funding

Holmwood and McGettigan (2011, p. 3) noted that the White Paper ‘reveal[ed] a worrying lack of vision for the future of UK universities’ that ‘reverses the direction for the future of higher education set out by the Dearing Report in 1997 and does so with no mandate’. Challenging the economic basis of the White Paper reforms, the authors claimed that ‘less would cost more’: the higher education reforms would not only be more costly but also ‘many students will pay more but get less.’ (Holmwood and McGettigan, 2011, p. 3)

Shattock (2011) argued that the higher education cuts in England in 2010–11 occurred in an uncertain process, are significantly larger (40–80 per cent) than earlier cuts to higher education in 1981 and are much greater than cuts in other areas of government. He asserted that the cuts were also bound up with UK Coalition politics, involving a significant change in the basic principle, adopted since the Robbins Report (1963) that higher education provides both a public and private good, rather than merely a private good. Shattock (2011) therefore asserted that it was necessary for higher education leaders to budget in a situation of significant uncertainty, as a result of the process by which the cuts had been introduced:

…what has resulted is a long drawn out exercise in indecision and uncertainties in the policy process. Universities have only received assurances of funding for two years…and some disciplines are to receive no funding for teaching at all…. The White Paper which was promised to explain all the changes has been postponed on three occasions…. (Shattock, 2011, p. 1)

Given these multiple challenges, respondents to the research project argued that English higher education leadership must now cope effectively with planning for change despite continuing uncertainties of funding, market positioning and the influence of new competition from international and private providers. A divergence of opinion in response to the policy changes on funding emerged, both in the documentary evidence considered and in respondents’ views.

‘Funding crisis! What funding crisis?’

Divided views were noted throughout the period of data collection regarding whether and how far there was a crisis in funding in English higher education. Some respondents argued that if spending on higher education is, in theory, increasing, as the White Paper (BIS, 2011) has declared and if income per student will be higher, there might not be ‘a crisis’ in funding at all. As Interviewee J observed, ‘In funding, we could be ‘quids in’ [wealthier], given the difference between fee levels and marginal costs.’ By this argument, it might be more a question of higher education institutions adjusting to different income streams and being entrepreneurial with income generation rather than risk-averse. Interviewee K noted that ‘entrepreneurial approaches need to come from the ‘small businesses’ at devolved level [in universities] and so need trust, which will be imperative in the future’. Yet, other respondents reported cynically that entrepreneurial higher education leaders keen to change provision could use the sense of crisis internally to get some things accepted that might have been resisted more actively in calmer times.

The worrying aspect of pragmatic entrepreneurial responses, which could be classified as ‘adaptive’ responses to recessionary times, as in Middlehurst's (2010) triad, building on Senge, is that they may be predicated on an implicit acceptance of the changes in principles and values to which Shattock (2011) refers: that is, to the notion that higher education is a ‘private’ good for which individual students must pay. In this brave new world, the ‘public’ benefit of higher education, both in England and internationally, may be overlooked in the rush to be competitive.

Changing interpretations of public benefit in higher education

While UK higher education has been outstandingly successful in ‘combining excellence with access’ (Brown, 2010), the challenges now facing the public-benefit role of English higher education system are unprecedented. The ‘utterly changed’ world that Middlehurst (2010), Marginson (2011) and Brennan (2011) depict for higher education is the subject of two recent reports by PA Consulting Group (PACG, 2009, 2010) that drew on survey results with vice-chancellors to signal that the environment in which UK higher education is operating is undergoing a major shift. The 2009 PA Consulting Group report indicated that an unsettling climate change was occurring in higher education (PACG, 2009). Researchers such as Altbach, who wrote: ‘For almost a century, universities have…been seen as instruments for social mobility.’ (Altbach, 2008, p. 70) have previously highlighted the respected social and economic role of universities. Yet that role is under pressure in England and is vulnerable to change, in response to what has been termed not just a ‘perfect storm’ of critical problems that have arisen in the funding of higher education during 2009–12, but, rather, a major ‘climate change’ (PACG, 2010, pp. 1–3).

Furthermore, the PA Consulting Group's 2009 report indicated that the world would not return to any pre-storm ‘normal’ state afterwards:

What we see happening today is long-term and irreversible climate change in the HE [higher education] environment. The factors in this change are political, social, economic and technological and are happening rapidly on a global level…. The business of higher education is undergoing a fundamental transformation, from an ‘old world’ of public funding entitlements to a still-forming ‘new world’ of income earned through value delivered. (PACG, 2009, p. 2)

In advising higher education institutions on how to meet the imperatives of this new era, the PA Consulting Group report (PACG, 2009) advises universities to avoid ‘the Red Queen effect’, a situation in which universities run ever faster, exhausting themselves to keep up with multiple demands in a harsh climate, while making little or no progress. The authors advise universities to respond with strong leadership, agility and innovation, altering business models to diversify funding streams and re-model the institution so that it is no longer reliant on guaranteed government funding. The PA Consulting Group report recommends that to cope with the new economic climate, higher education leadership needs to concentrate on improving ‘focus, excellence, agility, impacts and viability’ (PACG, 2009, p. 1).

Although the research findings of this study were generally in accord with the thrust of the recommendations made by PA Consulting Group in their reports (PACG, 2009, 2010), respondents drew attention, in addition, to the role of values, trust, social purpose and organisational culture in ensuring that universities thrive as enriched environments in which learning, teaching, scholarship, research and enterprise thrive in the new economic climate. Within this, the potential for higher education institutions to reinvent themselves in creative ways is highlighted by Bradwell, amongst others:

The catalyst for change is the economic downturn, which has given a new impetus to finding innovative ways to adapt. Phyllis Grummon of the Society for College and University Planning suggests that we are in a ‘neutral zone'—a time of maximum uncertainty and time for creative possibility between the ending of the way things have been and the beginning of the way they will be. (Bradwell, 2009, p. 63)

At such a time, as all respondents noted, there is a particular need for higher education leadership to build trust both internally and externally for continuity and sustainability.

Trust is engendered, not managed, through building ‘trust capital’

Evidence from the analysis of selected interviews, the surveys and reflections from the focus group indicated that some erosion of trust in the organisational cultures and wider environment affecting higher education institutions seemed to be occurring in the current challenging period. The team gauged also from focus group discussions that there has been a move of higher education institutions in England generally towards increasingly hierarchical, bureaucratic, competitive and enterprising organisational cultures in the recession. As one respondent, a professor at a high performing post-1992 university, put it in his written response to the interview questionnaire:

I do think HE leaders have in some cases ceased to operate as a boundary filter (what I tend to characterise as coping with ambiguity to make it manageable internally) and instead have come to be seen as agents of some malign external agency, or simply people who don't care about education as much (if at all) as they care about their own positions and rewards…. There is a major problem of individual ethics and integrity which has been either precipitated or accentuated by the prevailing ‘post-Thatcher/greed-is-good/me-first/everyone-else-is-doing-it’ culture, which has seen HE leaders in the UK both boost their salaries in the same kind of proportions as private sector leaders, and collude with or even actively promote a managerialist approach which alienates followers from leaders. (Interviewee A)

Significant concerns about a loss of trust were reported by numerous university respondents. Nevertheless, many also replied with optimism, critical awareness, rigorous debate and innovative thinking for leadership to promote regeneration. One senior respondent, a vice-chancellor, said it was important not to ‘try to generate trust in a management way; do it by your actions. It has to be seen as natural to bestow trust and to respect people and their differences’. There was, in his view, ‘a need for openness on key issues, balancing strengths and sensitivity; so: listen but lead, consult but act. Trust is engendered, not managed’ (Interviewee F).

A further respondent, also a vice-chancellor, commented that it was important for leaders to build up ‘trust capital’ in the institution, for example through commitment to building developments with ‘symbolic value in generating confidence in the university’ because of the ‘evidence of commitment by leaders’. This vice-chancellor recognised that ‘the next period will be challenging’ but reported that his emphasis was not exclusively on current dilemmas ‘as much on after the crisis” and preparing for that so as to meet it, maintain a dynamic and be ready to move on within the next phase; to come out on the up escalator’. (Interviewee E).

The changes in higher education: an erosion of trust?

All respondents to the study noted and commented on the significant changes underway in higher education in England. Though there were variable responses, it was abundantly clear to all that there is currently an ‘age of austerity’ in higher education (Watson, 2011, p. 9). One survey respondent, a part-time lecturer in a post-1992 university, observed that, as a result of the current changes to higher education funding:

Communication locally is more prescriptive…[with] less sharing locally, minimal consultation, more and more burdensome control procedures. The bureaucracy is more evident and more oppressive. Mutually suspicious, each party believes that the purpose and intent of the other is to ‘do it down’ or ‘screw it’. Institutional leadership has a preference for bullying and intimidation, and this cascades and pervades.’ (Survey Respondent 1/#2).

This survey respondent compared the changes in higher education with those in the National Health Service (NHS) in England, saying that:

The NHS has got like HE. It used to be participative, democratic, consultative. Skirmishing clinical professions with a common purpose and shared values used to co-exist and create improved environments for better patient outcomes. Now, corporate goals and targets rule managerialist ideologues, and all clinical practice is subservient to Bunker-led edicts. ‘Old fashioned’ values are at best ridiculed, at worst punished, and ethical whistle-blowing is very dangerous. Morale is poor, trust is low, mutuality between professions is eroded by a Darwinian need to survive. Pervasive in both NHS and HE. (Survey Respondent 1/#2).

Amongst the voices of those who felt that there was a growing sense of distrust in higher education in England was a professor from an élite Russell Group institution, who ‘strongly disagreed’ that her views and needs were considered when decisions were made in the university. She noted that:

I have a wide-ranging HE experience from élite higher education institutions to polys [polytechnics] and new universities, but the climate barely differs…. There is a limited culture of trust in our organisation and it has seeped away through neo-liberal and competitive approaches which do not foster trust…. Over the last thirty years the cultures of higher education have been changing towards less collegiality and trust and more bullying and competition. In particular, [although] there is a more responsive climate to women,…they are treated almost always as subordinate to the patriarchal culture. (Survey Respondent 2/#2)

Respondents noted that although the White Paper anticipated increased spending on higher education up to 2015, this will arrive in higher education institutions by a different route from before, which will have an impact on institutions. Students may be more demanding about the use of money: fee income will not all go to teaching support or enhancing the student experience. A professor from a post-1992 university commented on the new funding arrangements, saying that ‘departments may become more protective of their income, so strategic virement may diminish, as happened with the polytechnics in another age of austerity’ (Interviewee K).

Competition over resources erodes lateral trust and collegiality, as well as being inefficient. Universities have been competitive previously, for example over research bids, but more often with others in the wider world, not internally. A more market-focused, utilitarian system is likely to lead to sharper internal competition. Interviewee H, a former vice-chancellor of a post-1992 university and senior professor, agreed that ‘intra-institutional differences will be greater because of competition for funds: now they will come through fees rather than a block grant’.

As a result, spending on overheads may come under greater scrutiny. Interviewee F, a vice-chancellor, commented that mistrust in management is a function of the majority of income being spent on central university activities. The PA Consulting Group reports (PACG, 2009, 2010) indicated that some vice-chancellors were in denial about problems in their own institutions in observing that others would have problems but that their own institutions would be fine. The 2010 report noted: ‘A strong majority of vice-chancellors expect major structural disruptions in the higher education sector over the next three years, but very few anticipate these affecting their own institutions’ (PACG, 2010, p. 3). Yet only 55 per cent of vice-chancellors thought they had ‘fully-effective’ leadership capabilities, only 28 per cent were ‘fully confident of their ability to effect change’ and only 50 per cent had a ‘fully effective and supportive governing body’ (PACG, 2010, p. 5).

The differential effects of change in higher education: élite versus mass

A number of respondents commented on differential effects of the changes in higher education on higher education institutions in different mission groups. Interviewee J, a vice-chancellor and senior professor, commented that ‘the binary line is opening up, with the dividing line getting fuzzy’, while movement up and down the league tables was creating a ‘squeezed middle’. He noted pragmatically that at national level it was ‘impolitic to make resistance to the government agenda obvious and take on centres of power and patronage’.

Interviewee H observed that the government was driving wedges to promote division, especially by privileging the already privileged. He said that the ‘gangs’ of different mission groups needed to recover trust and solidarity. However, as an ex-vice-chancellor, he perceived that the balance between autonomous leadership and agentic management may have moved towards the latter, since there was a greater willingness by government to intervene in the system of provision and less autonomy than previously. Interviewee H stated that in his view ‘there is a clear move by government to privilege a small group of institutions at the expense of everybody else’. This was, in his view, ‘a sort of smash and grab tactic in collusion with the lobby from a set of institutions within the Russell Group, not even all of them’. The response to this situation from the wider sector was, in his view, ‘by and large fatalistic’, to what is seen as ‘a deterministic context’, while ‘the academic community is so beaten down and so pathetic and so self-absorbed as to be unaware of the bigger issues affecting them’ (Interviewee H).

Interviewee H also noted that ‘there is a lack of trust across the gangs’ [the different higher education mission groups], while Interviewee I felt that ‘the sector itself is bitterly divided, with the élitist lobby [within the Russell Group] arguing for favours, especially over the RAE/REF’. Although Interviewee I said that ‘the silence of the “top” universities can be understood’, Interviewee H found ‘the silence of the lambs to slaughter’ incomprehensible, ‘since those at the top of universities are not meek and mild in other contexts’: the lack of response indicated ‘a conspiracy of silence, or compliance, with few speaking up to tell truth to power or even to put an alternative view’, while those who ‘challenged the ‘collective’ view of the chair, CEO and cronies are not popular’. (Interviewee H).

A sense of fatalism about differentiation and stratification across élite and mass mission groups identified by some respondents was echoed in this sanguine comment in the public media:

…in reality nothing much is going to change at the established large universities. They have no shortage of willing potential students, and could if they wish increase their intake if necessary. They will continue to try and attract the best researchers and will compete with each other to be world leading. However…things will be very different [for]…the smaller 94 group and newer universities who will struggle to attract students and will probably have to merge or close and will definitely become effectively teaching-only institutions. (Sorn, 2011)

Despite the divergence in views on funding and the differences between ‘mission groups’, consensus emerged amongst all respondents on one key issue: that trust was important to them and vital to leadership and to the sector in general. An extremely rare 100 per cent response rate was recorded to this question in the survey. Many respondents were also clear in identifying that, while funding uncertainties were unsettling, values-based leadership approaches built trust and reasserted personal integrity in managing ambiguity and coping with change.

‘Negative capability’ as a protective boundary filter maintained by leaders

Interviewee E was amongst a number of very senior English respondents with notable experience in higher education who reported that ‘good communications are crucial’ in building trust, as are openness, accessibility of senior leaders, mutual respect amongst staff, effective decision-making, optimism, humour and praise or publicity for examples of institutional excellence. Interviewee E noted that it was important that institutional ‘successes are celebrated to create a culture of success and to generate confidence and motivation, a dynamic within which all feel that they can succeed and will be recognised’. However, this interviewee acknowledged the risk that external influences could pull institutions towards a more instrumentalist and performative corporate bureaucracy. He discussed the ways in which he avoided that by cultivating an optimistic culture and investing in the institution to ‘generate confidence in the university’.

At the other end of the seniority scale in a different geographical area, a main grade lecturer at a post-1992 university reported similar views on trust and leadership, replying:

I would simply say that leaders need to have trust in staff to work through these times, and if [they are] managed correctly [they are] very amenable. Leaders simply need to trust and ensure measures are in place to tackle the problems ahead…. In my view, trust is lost when management lie, fail to deliver, and seem not to have the requisite skills to do their job. (Interviewee B)

The external environment: like all the fireworks going off at once

Interviewees H and K were amongst numerous respondents who agreed that the external challenges facing English universities were significant and posed a potential threat to the well-being of institutions. Interviewee H observed that at such times senior leaders in higher education play an important role in ‘mediating across the institutional boundary’. He highlighted the ‘protective’ role of leadership in attempting to ‘filter out the worst elements’ of the external environment. These elements were ‘no different when the government became more intrusive, just more intense and demanding’. Observing that ‘trust is easier to destroy than develop’, Interviewee H characterised the external English higher education policy environment as ‘an unstable mix of daft statist policies and uncontrollable market forces’, with ‘all the fireworks going off at once’. Interviewee K observed that it was essential for leaders to ‘stop the [rubbish coming in] from outside’. He advised them to ‘…[practice] boundary management with clear strategic priorities, allowing a sift of the constant barrage of events, policies and initiatives’.

In separate interviews, Interviewee H and Interviewee F shared similar views in insisting on ‘being open and honest, even if it is not what they want to hear’ and in recommending leaders to ‘be accessible; respond to emails; have drop-in surgeries; if people have a point of view, listen, engage, argue’ (Interviewee H). This senior higher education expert interviewee recommended that leaders should ‘be clear about [their] values’ and should resist ‘a fatalistic response to what is seen as a deterministic context’.

Avoid staff being used as donkeys in a bullying culture

The importance of resisting negative influencing factors from the external environment and in fostering a positive internal culture was also recognised in guidance provided in the survey response (7/#2) of a researcher in a post-1992 university in the south of England, who felt there was ‘a total lack of trust’ in their institution. This respondent highlighted the damage that can occur in organisations when university leaders succumb to external pressures to focus on efficiency at the expense of staff morale. An international researcher with three years experience of working in a Chinese university, this respondent said ‘I found junior staff were treated more equally there, instead of being used as donkeys which is what is happening in the UK. I think the bullying culture in the UK HE sector needs to be addressed as soon as possible’.

The researcher recommended that trust should be built through leadership that was genuine, supportive and less driven by self-interest, in an environment in which leaders created a culture of real team work. This was instead of making staff feel they worked for a specific manager to satisfy that person's personal enterprise. By contrast, staff should be being supported to do a good job in general, in ways that generated high trust and good morale:

HE in the UK is experiencing a hard time, and managerialism will increase efficiency and effectiveness, but some managers might use the label to becoming controlling and dominating and put more power over staff. Academic work is very emotionally involved and is love of work: in consideration of such little pay and the huge amount of time spent [on work], in general low morale will damage the creativity of staff. (Survey Respondent 7/#2)

This survey respondent said the university in which they worked was ‘very hierarchical and political’ and they ‘did not feel there was leadership, but power control’. The respondent replied that ‘the staff in my [Research] Centre did not trust the Head at all, as they felt that s/he was bullying, manipulative and unethical and s/he plagiarizes and steals staff ideas. There is a culture in my centre that [people will say] ‘do not tell the Head your idea, otherwise that will be hers/his…’ (Interviewee 7/#2, participants anonymised to avoid identification).

Gaps between top managers and staff

The sense of distance and suspicion between senior university leaders and staff in low trust situations was also picked up in a response from Interviewee B, a main-scale lecturer from a post-1992 South East university, who described the relationship between the leadership of their institution and the staff in this way:

I would describe it as very hierarchical in that there is a large step between communication with top managers and staff on the ground…. on the whole there is a huge gap, and a sense of divide. This means that trust in decisions (key decisions) is somewhat lacking. There seems to be little trust in others…there is next to no trust in leaders…confidence in their ability to see us through the next five years is very low. The lack of trust is based on competence (some staff are not up to the job, in my opinion) and poor judgement. There is zero trust from middle management that people can do their jobs. (Interviewee B)

The need to re-assert integrity

In such situations, there was a particular need to rebuild trust by establishing firm values, openness, competence, benevolence and integrity. As Questionnaire Respondent A noted:

The problem is that the people who get appointed to leadership positions are systematically the managerialists rather than the educationalists, for obvious reasons, so there is a positive feedback loop and the managerialism is reinforced and pushed further and further down the hierarchy.

The respondent said that his answer to this was:

something to do with reasserting and redeveloping personal integrity, especially among leaders and managers. This may be whistling in the wind, but I can't see a better option. Also, it is pretty clear that the alternative, that is, value-free managerialist target-chasing, doesn't work and is creating greater and greater problems. (Interviewee A)

By contrast, Interviewee F's comment: ‘do not waste a good crisis’ could be taken as an opportunity for the application of managerialism and centralisation of control in universities. In similar vein, Interviewee I, vice-chancellor of a post-1992 university, stated pragmatically that ‘Many staff and governors alike do not like the world we are moving to but the realists accept that there will be a big change—in work practices, not in basic values’.

Drawing together the responses, the team noted that the issue of effective ‘boundary management’ appeared to be crucially important to respondents at a challenging time in higher education and that leaders played a vital, if lonely role protecting their organisational cultures from the rapidity and harsh imperatives of the outside policy environment. A majority of respondents felt that senior managers needed to lead through vision and integrity, built on deep awareness of the key purposes of their institution. Leaders needed to work intelligently to maintain the core values of higher education in creating high-trust environments in which staff felt valued in an open, responsive culture where innovation could thrive in a new, market-driven era. Thus, while the external climate had undoubtedly changed in radical ways, there was a need to protect the interior landscape and culture of institutions from the worst aspects of changes.


Research participants were unanimous in the view that trust is vital for the beneficial and effective operation of educational institutions and that it is of key importance at a time of uncertainty in higher education. As the paper demonstrates above, a number of respondents indicated that performativity to state-monitored targets in higher education (Deem, 1998) has in varying ways seemed to increase distrust, lessening the self-organising potential of universities to develop excellent scholarship in an environment enriched by academic freedom. Pragmatically entrepreneurial views were also expressed by some participants, who indicated that panic-inducing concerns about financial melt-down and significant loss of traditional values in higher education may in some instances be overblown.

In general, however, most respondents were dubious about the extent to which academic leadership was still trusted and trustworthy in fulfilling the higher purposes of universities. A number of higher education experts indicated that there was indeed now a greater climate of suspicion and ‘managed accountability’ to government performance targets within an increasingly uncertain English higher education future.

Given current uncertainties about the future of higher education in England, the capacity to maintain a state of ‘negative capability’ seems necessary to allow space for invention and to foster trust and effective leadership despite significant gaps in information about future funding. Respondents indicated that when both future provision for students and staff are in doubt, the capability to manage uncertainty in generating trust and optimism for the future is a key leadership attribute. For higher education leaders in England, in particular, there is a crucial need now to operate as astute ‘border controllers’ to filter out harmful pressure on internal organisational cultures in higher education institutions from the wider environment.

Like patterns in a stick of rock: classic values still embedded within executive leaders

Despite this, a majority of respondents indicated that, even given the difficulties of the current climate and the view that ‘there is a generational shift in the concept of a university and its place in society’ (Interviewee J), for the most part, higher education institutions in England were resilient in facing the challenges before them. Several respondents noted that staff continued to adhere to the enduring values and purposes of higher education. Interviewee A noted that, while it was ‘predominantly the era of the careerist’ for younger academic staff, there was, despite this, a ‘strong subtext of continuing commitment to classic HE values’.

Loyal adherence to collegial scholarly values was also a strong attribute of more senior staff. Interviewee J, a senior executive professor with significant higher education experience, noted that although there was now external pressure on university executives to adopt highly instrumentalist views, the ‘values aligned to “traditional” liberal views will still be found embedded in them [like the patterns in a stick of rock]’ (Interviewee J). Senior leaders could respond to institutional values by ‘suppression, encouragement or re-channelling’ but respondents thought that a skilful approach was to take a medium- to long-term view through values-based leadership, ‘creating space for and need for a clear institutional identity’, with potential for ‘leading the institution’ rather than managing a branch location of ‘government policy delivery’ (Interviewee J). Such an approach requires academic vision as well as knowledge of what the institution really stands for, what it represents and how it relates to students. Interviewee J advised that it was necessary to ‘trust students and their judgements; do not get hung up on competition; be a good neighbour, despite the pressures from “the system” ’ (Interviewee J).

Overall, the research found that leadership adherence to longer-term values of higher education in resisting the false necessity of instrumentalist solutions requires the skill of negative capability, the ability to embrace flexibility and creative innovation in building staff trust to cope proactively with uncertainty and rapid change. Respondents indicated that such qualities were now needed for academic leaders to maintain their role in shaping the deeper purposes of higher education during a recession, particularly in England but also in the wider international environment, given the multiple pressures on higher education within a global recession. The evidence from selected higher education respondents was that institutions and their staff are unexpectedly resilient in retaining a deep sense of professional autonomy, informed by the classic values of older Humboldtian scholarly and collegial understandings of the role of universities as a higher public good.

However, in an era of marketisation, these values are threatened by the external climate of policies that focus mainly on competition, student demand and privatisation. Hence there is a need for values-based leadership to act as a strong boundary filter in creating and protecting an internal high trust innovative climate. Several respondents reported on the damaging influence of low-trust unprotected situations. Participants did also in general perceive a loss of trust within and in English higher education, particularly within the external climate. The findings of the study therefore have implications for higher education leadership and management theory, practice and policy regarding negative capability as a leadership attribute and approach in a recession, although further research and professional development in this area is required to map these out in detail.

Strong, values-based leadership in higher education, in which there is a reassertion of integrity and public benefit, may still find safe passage for higher education institutions through the challenging circumstances now facing English higher education. The role played by leadership values in building trust, sustainability and enriched organisational cultures to enable universities and colleges to cope with the difficult circumstances of the recession is essential for survival. Selected respondents indicated that it was necessary to challenge performative, managerial cultures that lessen self-organising egalitarian potentials for excellent collegial scholarship. In doing so, and in managing uncertainty skilfully, leaders at all levels who maintain an openness to listen and reflect may hear a deeper need within the sector for academic leadership to be trusted again to fulfil the higher purposes of universities.