New EUA President: Traditional leadership style must go. Universities are changing

Universities face many challenges. Somehow, they have managed the Covid-19 pandemic and the onset of war in Ukraine, but university autonomy and academic freedoms continue to be eroded in Europe. The economic crisis is threatening funding. A new system of research and researcher assessment is a matter of discussion throughout the EU. Super-effective AI tools are now on the scene. From the beginning of July, as new President of the European University Association, Josep M. Garrell will have to respond to these challenges.

Read the text in Czech translation.

EUA is Europe’s largest organisation of its kind, representing over 850 organisations from 49 countries. Josep M. Garrell, former Rector of Barcelona’s Ramon Llull University and a current member of the EUA Board, will replace Michael Murphy, who has led EUA since 2019, in the position for four years from 1 July.

Professor Garrell sees strong leadership as a key area for EUA to work on. “Unless the academic community plays a leadership role in society, the position of universities in society is likely to decline. And one of the consequences may be lack of funding, lack of public investment in education,” he says.

At a time of great change and, in many cases, crisis, will an organisation like EUA need reform in any sense?
I think the answer to your question might be two apparently contradictory words that have been articulated during my meetings with national rectors’ conferences and individual EUA members. One is ‘continuity’ and the other is ‘change’. Continuity because people are really happy with the positive transformation EUA has undergone in the past 4 years with Michael Murphy as President. And EUA has also a strong portfolio of tools for impact.

As an example, I would highlight two documents that show what universities should be like in future to help our society deal with big global challenges. These are Universities Without Walls: A vision for 2030, and the association’s strategic plan. They speak not only about EUA, but also about the higher education sector in general, and its future. We also work continuously on a number of projects, such as Trends reports, on learning and teaching, doctoral education, Public Funding Observatory, University Autonomy Scorecard, among other things. So, continuity is a must. And change? That’s because we live in a very dynamic and changing environment. And we need to be open to whatever change is needed. So, I would like to do a midterm review of the strategic plan, just to make the adjustments for fine tuning, to ask people what they think in a quick but formal way.

From an internal point of view, we need to define how we can better play our role of representing universities, and also what we can to improve the added value for our members.

Better representing means also intensifying work with EU politicians to make universities’ demands even more visible, for instance?
Yes, this is one of the things that EUA does and should do. For sustaining and improving our position, we need to intensify our efforts in communication, advocacy and lobbying in general. EUA defines itself as the voice of European universities. It is the largest and most comprehensive association of universities in Europe altogether, not just the EU. We need to defend our sector and promote necessary adjustments on regulation and framework conditions. We need to continuously engage with different external stakeholders. For example, when we are designing a major strategic project – the Universities and the Future of Europe (UniFE) project – we have to keep in mind that the EU elections are next year. So, we must have this document ready before the European elections, and we must identify exactly what we need in order to help our society manage the big challenges.

What first steps in office will you take? Do you plan to engage more with national rectors’ conferences?
As I said, the Strategic Plan mid-term review will be one priority. But I’m also planning to dedicate a lot of my time to contact and permanent dialogue with the members, and yes, especially with the national rectors’ conferences. You cannot represent members of an association if you do not know them. I will try to promote a quick round of bilateral meetings with the various rectors’ conferences. And that as soon as possible, and preferably in person. I would be very happy if we could include EUA as a topic on the agenda of their meetings. To meet and get to know different teams, to listen, to talk, to try to understand the diversity of all the members is in my opinion essential. EUA is of course huge; our members are the national rector's conferences from 35 countries. It can take a year to meet the different NRCs. But I think it is a worth doing.

You mentioned added value for EUA members. What would that entail?
One of my priorities is intensification of the service provided to the rectors’ conferences and also to individual members. In my manifesto, which I sent out to everyone before the election, I made a number of proposals. Let me mention just one. It concerns leadership. Quality leadership is a very important issue in all institutions. And we would like to help university leaders deal better with the various challenges.

Are you considering seminars, training or courses?
That could be one possibility. But we need to wait a little bit to define the next step. We are discussing various possibilities at EUA Board level. We are finishing an Erasmus+-funded project, NEWLEAD, on leadership, and we already have several proposals that could be implemented gradually. But first we need to start cooperation with the different university systems to find out what they need and what problems or issues they have, and to identify very clearly what could be the real added value of EUA in this regard. Why not in the end create something like an EUA Leadership Academy? But nothing has been decided yet, we are working on it.

To approach things more generally, when we talk about the importance of university leadership, do changing times demand a change in leadership to maximise effectiveness in facing up to challenges?
Yes. Leadership in universities cannot be as it was before. Universities are more complex. They are not so vertical anymore. They are structured more horizontally; leadership is distributed all across the institution.

One of the things that we have learned in the NEWLEAD project is that in modern leadership, soft skills like active listening, promotion of critical thinking – application of so-called soft power, are very important. In short, things have changed, and so has what people require from leadership and management.

We need to change the “traditional” way a leader operated in the past. Leadership is not just about decision-making; it is about helping people make their own decisions. We talk about collaborative or distributed leadership, which means you have to rely more on your colleagues in the team. The rector is just one part in the machinery. But it goes without saying that he or she has a lot of responsibility, and many duties that others don’t have. The NEWLEAD project addresses so-called induction programmes as an important tool. We need to formally educate ourselves in this respect. There is a lack of provision of leadership induction programmes. And, as I said before, we need to change how the role of leadership is played in general, introducing the notion of soft power. That’s why we want to intensify our efforts in soft skills.

Do you think that university management differs from the corporate sector in this regard?
Yes, it is not the same. There are some differences.

As a rector, you need to understand business, make contracts, understand the institution, but quite fundamentally you need to understand the public service you provide to society. You are operating in a different context, with lots of regulations, and with an institutional culture and governance that are usually very different from what exists in corporations. In the university sector, collaboration is very important.

This was shown very clearly during the Covid pandemic. All the Spanish universities worked together to react quickly. At my university, for example, 25% of students are international. We had to help our students get back home as quickly as possible and then immediately ensure that they could continue with their studies. I am proud of the things we have done as a university system in general: the dialogue with the administration, and between universities, both public and non-public, and, as in our case, private non-profit university, all the new regulations, the measures – such a quick response would not have been possible without such cooperation.

At that time, I was a member of the Spanish Rectors’ Conference board, in addition to being a rector, so I know how much work it took to bring all the universities together. But I’m proud of the things we did, and I’m really grateful for the experience. For being part of a university system, a sense of belonging, learning from each other, getting in touch with others, trying to find the best experiences and sharing them. In a crisis like this, no one has the perfect solution alone.

Conversely, do you think that weak leadership undermines the position of universities in society?
Yes, definitely. I think the role of university leadership is very important. The rector has a big responsibility. As part of my regular rector’s routine, I tried to explain to my colleagues every week that if we make a mistake, its negative consequences are likely to have a big impact on the whole university community in a very short time. But if we make the right decision, we will probably only see its effects in the long term, when new opportunities are created for the university, when whole areas are transformed.

I think that if university community do not play a leading role in society, the position of universities in society is likely to decline. And one of the consequences of this may be lack of funding, lack of public investment in education.

So, should a university leader also be a lobbyist?
I don’t often use the expression lobbying; there are too many bad associations with it. But yes, we need to communicate better and constantly what we need, and we need to engage better with society in general. The rectors, rectors’ conferences and the EUA play the role of advocates. And that is not an easy one. The traditional mission of universities has changed, with other areas added to teaching and research. And sometimes we should stop and reflect a little on the consequences of good and bad leadership.

I’m thinking of Hungary here. The last EUA report on academic autonomy highlighted the dramatic change that Hungarian higher education has undergone, including with regard to university leadership. What developments there do you see as the biggest problems?
The situation in Hungary is very difficult. All over the world, in Europe and, unfortunately, also in the European Union, we are living at a time of decline in the quality of democracy.

The case of Hungary, to keep it simple, is that some public universities have been transformed into foundations represented by boards of trustees. The first problem is that members of the boards are appointed by the government. And they are appointed for a life. The second is that some decision-making power is shifting from the academic community to this board of trustees. In regard to individual decisions, maybe you see no risk in that. But when you analyse a whole series of decisions, you get a complex picture. And then the situation is very high-risk, in terms both of university autonomy and of university values and freedoms.

Regarding the report on autonomy (Autonomy Scorecard) that you mentioned, we decided not to include Hungary in the main report but to write a separate report for it, and at the same time we wanted to explain the reasons for this decision. The decision to leave the Hungarian university system out of the main report was not an easy one. The Hungarian National Rectors’ Conference sent us several letters to explain their situation. In the end, however, we decided that we could not apply the same methodology as for the other university systems analysed.

But it’s probably not just Hungary, lately also Sweden…
The situation in Hungarian universities is unfortunately the most obvious example of the problem we face. But yes, we are seeing certain measures with implications for university autonomy in other countries as well. To take an example, we are currently supporting Swedish universities [at the end of May, the Association of Swedish Higher Education Institutions called on the Swedish government to reconsider its decision to shorten the mandate of external members of university boards, which represents disproportionate interference in the institutional governance of universities – editor’s note]. It is a very difficult situation, but EUA will continue to work on this issue, to explain what values universities stand for and the risks some decisions made by some governments may cause.

EUA members include those Hungarian universities that were excluded from European funding programmes. Are you considering any exclusion or different treatment for these universities within EUA?
No. All we can do is promote regulatory change, as well as listening to our members actively, keeping in touch with the different rectors’ conferences and the European Commission, explaining different practices in Europe. And try to find out how we can help. We thought that our Autonomy Scorecard, which we talked about a moment ago, was a good opportunity. And you may remember that in 2022, the EUA annual conference was held in Budapest.

Yes, I was a bit surprised by that decision.
That was clearly the intention. It’s the only way to give all members a chance to explain what they think about such things and try to see what we can do together.

Is it the same in relation to Ukraine? What steps is EUA currently planning for support of Ukrainian higher education?
As you know, we as EUA are currently focusing on the reconstruction phase in Ukraine. We have set up a working group, chaired by Ivanka Popović, which is preparing a set of proposals.

Is there an exact date for when its findings will be published?
We need to wait a bit; we don’t know what the final version of the document will look like yet [The interview was conducted at the end of May. At the time of its publication, work on the document was in its final phase – editor’s note]. But it will focus on the reconstruction. Hopefully the war will end as soon as possible. But the reconstruction will take a long time. And there is some risk that we may think that we have found the right solution. So, we need to keep all channels of communication open. Active listening is essential to find the best way to help the Ukrainian higher education sector; involving different types of universities will allow us to understand the needs of the whole sector. We will write the list of proposals with this in mind.

Are you considering inviting Ukrainian universities to join EUA as full members?
Many Ukrainian universities have already joined EUA as full members. We were also very happy that the Ukrainian rectors’ conference decided to join EUA as a collective full member. But I think it is very important to keep talking about the situation in Ukraine. Here in Spain, for example, we talked a lot about the war in the beginning, but now people’s interest in it is waning. And I see this as a big risk: the war is not over.

EUA also played an active role in discussions about a new system of research assessment in the EU. What is the EUA position now?
EUA’s position is still the same. We are actively participating in the whole process and trying to explain to the EU Commission and the whole sector that the reform of the research assessment is only one part of much-needed reform of academic assessment in general, at individual and institutional level. I think everybody is a little bit worried about this kind of assessment, in a form where – currently – it is just a partial assessment of the whole activity of the university.

If you focus only on one thing that universities do, how can you support the others? Take social engagement. We need to work on how we as universities will respond to new needs and expectations in society in terms of lifelong learning and new needs in a changing labour market, and how to be competitive in a global environment. In our strategy document Universities Without Walls we use the term ‘parity of esteem’. We have to put on the table that there are different missions that universities fulfil, and to give the right value to each of them. We need to reflect on what kind of reform we actually need. Of course, this is not a simple process. But it is very important. We have to be patient.