Institute of Teaching and Learning

Strategic leadership for institutional teaching and learning centres: developing a model for the 21st century

Project overview

The project was conceived in a bid to identify common factors that needed to be considered in the effective strategic leadership of central organisational structures to enhance long-term learning and teaching performance and to illustrate how these factors are dealt with contextually in a selection of contemporary university settings in Australian higher education. This project has been undertaken collaboratively by six universities of different organisational types (missions, visions, geographical make-up and educational profiles) that have some form of central Teaching and Learning Centre to deal systemically with broad sectoral pressures and their own respective internal challenges. It was within this context that the project focused on "strategic leadership". We borrow from Viljoen and Dann (2003) and Blackmore and Blackwell (2006), in that we have been primarily concerned with parties operating in central groups or interacting with them, who have various degrees of formal authority and institutional influence and who are expected to enhance the long-term learning and teaching performance of an organisation. This includes responsibility to enhance the quality of student learning through building strong institutional teaching capabilities. In line with contemporary leadership theorising, we see effective strategic leadership as being situational and distributed. It is therefore contingent on a particular university's history, ambition, geographical configuration and perceived strengths in the sector. Strategic leadership suggests that strategic leaders have the capacity to set directions, identify, choose and implement activities that create compatibility between internal organisational strengths and the changing external environment within which the university operates.

This project set out to identify the forms of leadership emerging in organisational Centres for Teaching and Learning and to determine whether or not they were responding to the 'organisational redesign' that Marginson (2000 p. 28) believed the sector required. Our primary aim was to develop a model of leadership that is anticipatory, innovative and creative, strategic and contingent that directs particular professional development and approaches in support of central groups as they confront the challenges of the 21st Century.

Given that the key interest of the research lay in investigating the nature of leadership in central organisational groups, participants in the project were those:

  • strategically responsible for creating and directing these groups, such as Pro-Vice Chancellors and Deputy Vice-Chancellors (Academic and/or Teaching and Learning)

  • responsible for managing the groups, such as Centre Directors and Heads

  • who contribute to their development on advisory boards, senior academic and general staff who work within these groups responsible for operational actions

  • senior academic and general staff who work within these groups responsible for operational actions

  • senior Faculty teaching and learning leaders who interact most directly with these groups in representing their faculties' interests, such as Associate Deans (T&L).

The needs of this collective leadership group are significant given the rapid change affecting their roles and operations both internally and externally. We set ourselves the goal of developing new insight into leadership as it is practically enacted in central organisational groups (henceforth, Centres).

This project arose in response to a number of external environmental developments across the higher education sector, in particular the then Department of Education, Science and Training (DEST) Learning and Teaching Performance Fund, the funding opportunities offered by the ALTC, and the influence of the Australian University Quality Agency audits. At the time of the project's commencement, concurrently, a number of Australian universities had restructured and were restructuring their central academic teaching and learning support operations. The remit of such Centres appeared to be to enhance teaching quality to take advantage of the dynamic changes confronting universities in regard to internal strengths and external opportunities. It is important to note that the related policy discourses were embedded in the recognition and nurturing of 'excellence' and 'quality'. While some institutions re-engineered or re-structured their central support groups for teaching and learning, other institutions did not. What we saw anecdotally, regardless of the Centres 'newness', was the emergence of a growing interest in the constituents of 'leadership' in such Centres that might generate sustainable improvement in teaching and learning and a concomitant interest in developing an evidence-base in the area to help guide decision-making.

Project Aims

The project had a dual purpose. First, we set out to investigate the ways in which institutional organisational structures and distinctive organisational cultures were being shaped to lead the enhancement of staff capacity building for teaching and learning quality assurance and improvement. The second aim of the project was to investigate the forms of leadership emerging in organisational Centres for Teaching and Learning and whether or not they were responding to the organisational redesign.

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Blackmore, P. & Blackwell, R. (2006). 'Strategic leadership in academic development'. Studies in Higher Education, 31(3), 373-387.

Viljoen, J. & Dann, S. J. (2003). Strategic Management (4th ed.). Frenchs Forest, N.S.W.: Prentice Hall.
Blackmore and Blackwell (2006)

Marginson, S. (2000), 'Rethinking academic work in the global era', Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 22(1), 23-37.

Support for this project website has been provided by the Australian Learning and Teaching Council Ltd, an initiative of the Australian Government Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations.

The views expressed in the project do not necessarily reflect the views of the Australian Learning and Teaching Council.

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22nd February 2011