Thriving in difficult times: a workshop for heads of department and subject leaders

Date: 10 September, 2009
Location: School of African and Oriental Studies, London, WC1H 0XG
Event type: Workshop


students in class

Past event summary

Leading in languages, linguistics and area studies has always been a challenge. The outcomes of the 2008 RAE, the drive to cut public spending and continuing concerns about student recruitment make the current times particularly difficult. These challenges make the need for strong leadership in LLAS departments all the more important. This very practical workshop is aimed at both experienced heads of department/ subject leaders and those new to the role.

Learning outcomes

At the end of the workshop participants will have and increased awareness of the importance of:

  • Understanding the place of LLAS subjects in your institution’s mission
  • Nurturing relationships with senior management
  • Understanding university decision making processes
  • Responding to senior management initiatives, messages and decisions
  • Promoting your subject within the university
  • Understanding the national picture
  • Leading change within your institution
  • Leading change in your department/ discipline

Workshop fee

There is a charge of £50 for this event.

Travel bursary

There are no travel bursaries available for this event.

Programme for 10 September 2009
Time Session
10.00 - 10.30 Registration and coffee
10.30 - 10.50 Welcome by Professor Paul Webley, Director and Principal of SOAS Introductions from LLAS and UCML.
10.50 - 11.35 Responding to the current crisis

Michael Kelly (Director of the Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies) and Pam Moores (Chair of the University Council for Modern Languages) will present an overview of the national picture in languages and related disciplines and will outline the challenges and opportunities presented by the current situation.

Powerpoint Slides, 588Kb

11.35 - 12.30 Group discussions on the national picture

Working in small groups participants will have the opportunity to discuss and respond to the overview of the present national picture. Michael Kelly and Pam Moores will facilitate this by suggesting questions for discussion.

Powerpoint Slides, 464Kb

12.30 - 13.30 Lunch
13.30 - 15.00 Responding to changing circumstances

Participants will work through scenarios in small groups for this session. Each scenario contains a problem, issue or question which will require a response from you as a subject leader or head of department. Each group will work out what it sees as the best responses to the situations presented and will feedback in a plenary session.

15.00 - 15.45 Winning friends and influencing people: leading in modern languages.

Michael Kelly will talk about the importance of nurturing productive relationships outside your department and with your senior managers. The session will also emphasise the importance of understanding your institution’s mission and being able to manage change effectively.

Powerpoint Slides, 572Kb

15.45 - 16.15 Open plenary session

This session will provide an opportunity to ask further questions or address issues which have arisen during the day.

16.15 Close

Event report: Thriving in difficult times: a workshop for heads of department and subject leaders

by John Canning

The outcomes of the 2008 RAE and the predicted cuts in public spending have exacerbated the longer term difficulties of recruitment of students in many languages and area studies subjects. This workshop, led by Michael Kelly (Director for the Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies and until recently, Head of Humanities at the University of Southampton) and Pam Moores (Dean of Languages and Social Sciences at the University of Aston and current chair of the University Council for Modern Languages (UCML)) sought to help heads of department and subject leaders respond the current situation as well as provide guidance on effective leadership in LLAS departments.

Michael Kelly, identified the many challenges facing colleagues in LLAS departments. These included the idea of English as a global language and declining numbers of students as well as general challenges like the RAE, increasing competition for research funding and the expansion of higher education.

Pam Moores addressed the challenges from the point of view of a faculty dean. She emphasised the need to understand where decisions are made in the university process and the need to win respect through intelligent leadership. Alienating colleagues in other disciplines and fighting lost causes must be avoided. Multidisciplinary departments and schools offer many opportunities for diversifying risk to modern languages, for example through integration with media and linguistics colleagues. 

The tone of the opening two presentations deliberately accentuated the negative and difficult aspects of leading in our subject areas at the present time. The next session of the workshop saw participants break into groups. Each group was set the task of identifying three strengths and three opportunities presented by the current situation.

Strengths identified included

  • Internationalisation can be built into all degree courses – it is concerned with culture as well as language.
  • Cross disciplinary interaction offers distinctive provision, e.g. integrating linguistics and psychology
  • There is the potential to offer languages to all students
  • Communication skills are an important part of student employability.
  • There is a multilingual and multicultural student body
  • Groups with other subjects (e.g. Education)  enable English as an Additional Language (EAL) and Applied Linguistics courses to be offered.
  • Various alliances and groupings are possible e.g. with business schools and Education departments.
  • There is an increasing sense of  a ‘Modern Languages’ community (as opposed to French, German, Spanish etc.).
  • ‘Flagship’ programmes can help support important, but less well recruiting programmes.
  • There can be a competitive advantage e.g. some languages are only taught in one institution
  • Small group teaching is good for student satisfaction. 
  • Some languages  e.g. Welsh have political importance
  • Languages colleagues have international networks of contacts

Opportunities identified included:

  • The Internationalisation agenda can be built into all degree programmes
  • Employability: can play to government emphasis on well rounded interculturally competent graduates
  • Transferable skills
  • Cultural capital of certain foreign cultures e.g. popularity of manga and anime
  • BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) are particularly important to UK government and business.
  • Further development of international networks
  • Current poor economic environment offers opportunities for learning new skills and enhancing employability.
  • Opportunities for collaboration between institutions


In the first session of the afternoon, participants formed groups to discuss how they would respond, as a head of department, to a series of different fictional scenarios. Each scenario outlined a situation in which the Head of Departments needed to make decisions and take some sort of action. A spokesperson  from each group then reported on the actions that they thought a Head of Department ought to take in each situation in a plenary session. Each group was allocated two scenarios, one long term and one short term. Four of the scenarios were discussed by two groups which served to demonstrate a number of possible actions which could be taken.   

Word Scenarios (Word File, 36Kb)

In the final session Michael Kelly did a presentation entitled’ Winning friends and influencing people’ in which he emphasised the need to build strong relationships within and outside the department in order to be successful as a head of department. It is important to focus on ideas rather than criticising and defending individuals and leading without a strategy will only lead to failure. Heads of departments need to know how decisions are made, what the institution’s key mission is, and who the key decisions makers are (Pro Vice Chancellors are increasingly key people in many institutions). It is also important to nurture good relationships with senior professionals (e.g. the Registrar and the Finance Director)—these individuals are likely to be important advisors to the Vice Chancellor. The Dean is often the person who has the most potential to inflict damage on the Head of Department. Heads of other departments can make good allies - they are facing the same sorts of challenges. The colleagues in the department are among the best assets and need to take ownership of the department. Sometimes it is the duty of the Head of Department to pass on difficult news, for example the need to redundancies or cutbacks - it is important to be honest and open at these times. It may be important to practise what you need to say in front of the mirror.

The workshop was very well received by those in attendance. Many participants valued the opportunity to network and discuss various issues with colleagues in similar roles. There is a strong demand for further workshops and events for heads of department and LLAS will be considering the focus for future events.