Social Media and Institutional Leadership in UK Higher Education

Sue Beckingham – Sheffield Hallam University
Simon Horrocks – The Open University

Short paper

This research project examines how senior leaders in UK higher education deploy social media to the benefit of their institutions, their staff and their students. As universities become increasingly digital institutions within complex distributed networks, we suggest it is vitally important for senior leaders to directly embrace social approaches to communication and engagement. Drawing on paradigms from other sectors and outside the UK, we begin the work by establishing the rationale for university leaders to communicate regularly, personally and responsively to support strategic change.

Specifically, we explore how ‘digital leadership’ through social media can:

  • promote institutional successes and strategies within and outside the University
  • enhance direct engagement with students, staff and other stakeholders
  • role model behaviours in relation to digital capabilities

Our work is underpinned by a data gathering exercises, mapping how Vice-Chancellors of all UK universities currently use social media, with specific focus on Twitter and LinkedIn. We have selected these channels because of their widespread use in prof4essional contexts. The quantitative data we provide will establish how regularly these senior leaders use social media and what reach they have with particular networks.

This is complemented by a number of detailed case studies, looking at how individual Vice-Chancellors build their networks through disseminating interesting and valuable content. Qualitative analysis of the nature and tone of engagement employed by Vice-Chancellors will help illustrate to what extent they reveal individual personalities, humanising themselves, their roles and their examples of student engagement using social media, asking of the greater visibility and personalisation for senior institutional affiliation and belonging amongst the institution’s student body.

By way of conclusion, we summarise the opportunities and benefits of senior leaders in UK universities using social channels.


social media, communication, networks, social networks, digital leadership, digital capabilities, higher education, stakeholder engagement, Twitter, LinkedIn

Relation to the theme

  • engaging, stimulating and challenging learners
  • reaching and engaging different groups of learners
  • innovative ways of meeting learning outcomes and enabling learning gain
  • enhancing employability outcomes
  • building staff and student digital capability and confidence
  • scaling up excellence for broader impact