The Complexity of Change for Heads of Department in New Zealand Universities

Carroll, Matthew
Youngs, Howard
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Master of Educational Leadership
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Auckland University of Technology

The aims of the study were to investigate two research questions. First, how Heads of Department (HoDs) in New Zealand universities perceived they could influence change and second, how they approached change. The research questions were investigated through a literature review and a mixed method study that included an online survey and five semi-structured interviews with HoDs employed in New Zealand universities. Two hundred and fifty-nine New Zealand HoDs were invited to participate with 59 respondents (39 male and 20 female). Interviews were conducted with Five HoDs (3 male and 2 females).

The literature review analysed both quantitative and qualitative research surrounding the HoD role finding that the role could be defined by the tasks required of the HoD and by the organisational context within which the HoD operates. The review identified four central causes of role tension, lack of authority, role conflict, inadequate training prior to entering the role and high workload associated with the role. Data from the review informed question development for the online survey and interviews.

Analysis of survey data revealed HoDs perceived their ability to stimulate change was based on their individual leadership characteristics, the availability of resources, the position of the department and the skills of the staff. HoDs perceived the core skills required to stimulate change included their individual ability, their personal qualities and their political awareness. HoDs identified that key elements in initiating change included the ability to set the scene, develop a strategy and clear communication and relationship building.

Four themes emerged from thematic analysis of the interview data, (1) areas of perceived influence over change, (2) the influence of the position, (3) approach to change and (4) barriers to change. Regarding their perceived influence over change, HoDs viewed they could exert influence in five areas, curriculum, staff, leadership characteristics, resource allocation and strategy. Relating to how the HoDs approached change, there was a commonality that communicating the high-level philosophy or vision surrounding change, communication and discussion surrounding change and gaining an understanding of the need for change were priorities.

Triangulation of survey and interview data revealed HoDs perceived they could influence change through four approaches, curriculum, staff, leadership characteristics and strategy. HoDs approached the change process with seven underlying concepts in mind, communication, developing a common understanding of the change, developing a hunger for change, being mindful of how the change will affect staff, having awareness of the importance of the timing of the change, using collaborative decision making and the use of networking. The success of change was balanced by restraints, owing to the multiple layers within which HoDs function. Identified restraints included, inequities in the workload balance between research, teaching, management and administrative duties and influential forces within their department, the wider university and stakeholders external to the university. A key finding of the thesis that enables the HoD to effectively work across the multi-dimensional aspects of the role and implement successful change is their networking skills. Networking provides a mechanism to obtain influence, adapt to and build support for change, within their department, within the wider university and externally with stakeholders. The HoD who is well networked is in the ideal position to enable their department to more readily implement and adapt to change.

It is clear the role places many stresses on the HoD. The recommendations arising from this study advocate that the role must be incentivised and seen as a career prospect, not a role that diminishes academic credibility or career progression. The scope of the role must be resized, context-based training provided, network development enhanced and a more shared approach to leadership adopted.

Head of Department , University , Higher education , Change
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