Call for Papers: Educational Leadership in Higher Education


Invited editors: Sanna Lassen & Berit Lassesen

This special issue of Qualitative Studies aims to explore educational leadership in higher education. Our focus is on middle leaders without formal managerial power. They may be labelled as study leaders, educational leaders, course coordinators, or programme leaders. A common characteristic of these middle leaders is that they are both teachers and researchers and additionally are formally appointed to take special organisational responsibility for coordinating and developing education/teaching.

Over the last two decades, educational leadership has become a common answer to quality demands in higher education (e.g. Stensaker, Elken, & Maassen, 2019, p. 91), where leadership is understood as having an impact on the quality of student learning (e.g. Cardno, 2014, p. 352) and where educational leadership is needed to support educational development in local collegial contexts (e.g. Mårtensson & Roxå, 2016, p. 248). In research, educational leadership is a broad and messy concept. For example, the concept can be associated with hierarchical structures through distributed leadership based on the promise that management can delegate some of their decision-making power to special responsible employees (e.g. Kjeldsen, Quick, Jønsson, & Andersen, 2020, p. 54). It can also be related to middle leaders both with and without formal managerial power in the same study (e.g. Bryman, 2007; Grunefeld et al., 2017) if these different leaders have to do with influencing the goal-directed behaviour of others (Bryman, 2007, pp. 694-695). Both examples are regardless of the fact that middle leaders without formal power have different possibilities than those with formal power for influencing the behaviour of others within the authority and power structures of higher education institutions.

In the very limited research (Lassen & Lassesen, in preparation) - where this special issue’s middle leader role is central - a common theme is that educational leaders often lack formal power to lead and thus are caught in the middle between management and staff (Gjerde & Alvesson, 2020; Marshall, 2012). Even though there are individual studies and the research as such is not new, the field is nevertheless sparse and fragmented, and there is a lack of a more explicit picture of how these middle leaders are organisationally constituted and how they can handle the role.

With this special issue, we encourage academics to share, discuss and inspire each other and higher education organisations with the hope of being supportive for practice.

We are interested in topics that address these middle leaders and their environments from: 1) different theoretical traditions, e.g. sociological, psychological or philosophical perspectives; 2) different qualitative methodological approaches, e.g. interview, observation, audio diary, autoethnographic or document studies; 3) different organisational role perspectives, e.g. management, the middle leaders themselves, middle leader colleagues, students, or the political level; 4) different concepts, e.g. meaning, artefacts, emotions or routines. Against this background, the purpose of this special issue is to investigate both the possibilities and the limitations of this organisational middle leader role.

The issue is structured in two sections. Section one is for research articles (peer reviewed). Section two is for professional perspectives: reflections and discussion of relevance for practice or policy (not peer reviewed).


Relevant themes that potential contributors might consider and address are:

  • The organisational selection of the middle leaders;
  • The legitimacy of middle leaders without formal managerial power in the organisation;
  • The competencies that are needed, or that are used, to handle middle leader tasks and working relationships;
  • The middle leaders’ handling of competing imperatives and different role tensions, e.g. the tension between staff and management, the tension between staff and students or the tension between handling the role as a middle leader, as a teacher and as a researcher;
  • The different ways of supporting middle leaders, e.g. managerial support, support through competence development, mentoring, organisational structures, emotional support or artefacts.


Important dates:

1st May 2023: Abstracts submitted to the editors.

1st June 2023: Contributors invited to write a full paper.

1st December 2023: Manuscripts submitted to the editors and subjected to peer review.

1st March 2024: Peer reviews sent to the contributors.

1st May 2024: Deadline for submission of revised and finalised manuscripts.

1st June 2024: Special issue published.



Bryman, A. (2007). Effective leadership in higher education: a literature review. Studies in Higher Education, 32(6), 693-710. doi:10.1080/03075070701685114

Cardno, C. (2014). The functions, attributes and challenges of academic leadership in New Zealand polytechnics. International Journal of Educational Management.

Gjerde, S., & Alvesson, M. (2020). Sandwiched: Exploring role and identity of middle managers in the genuine middle. Human relations, 73(1), 124-151.

Grunefeld, H., Prins, F., Van Tartwijk, J., Van Der Vaart, R., Loads, D., Turner, J., . . . Wubbels, T. (2017). Faculty Development for Educational Leadership. In (pp. 73-101): Springer International Publishing.

Kjeldsen, A. M., Quick, C. N., Jønsson, T. F., & Andersen, L. B. (2020). Distribueret ledelse i den offentlige sektor. København: Djøf Forlag.

Lassen & Lassesen (in preparation). Literature review.

Marshall, S. G. (2012). Educational middle change leadership in New Zealand: the meat in the sandwich. The International Journal of Educational Management, 26(6), 502-528. doi:10.1108/09513541211251361

Mårtensson, K., & Roxå, T. (2016). Leadership at a local level – Enhancing educational development. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 44(2), 247-262. doi:10.1177/1741143214549977

Stensaker, B., Elken, M., & Maassen, P. (2019). Studieprogramledelse – et spørgsmål om organisering? Uniped, 42(1), 91-105. doi:10.18261/issn.1893-8981-2019-01-07