My biggest failure was being a v-c, but I don’t regret it

Anthony Seldon reflects on his time leading the University of Buckingham as he prepares to step down 

July 3, 2020
Fail
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My tenure as vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham has been a time of great stimulation, but also the biggest failure that I’ve known in my career. But I don’t regret any of it. With three months to go until I give up the post, here are some reflections on what I have learnt in the past five years.

First, what a long job it is to turn around a university, even a small one like Buckingham. When I arrived, I said that I wanted to make the university “distinctive” and “distinguished”. I’m not sure I achieved either. 

Aside from my own limitations as a leader, it requires cash to bring about change and the donors who I thought would give, didn’t. My arrival coincided with a demographic downturn in the UK and the lifting of the student numbers cap that made life hard in this part of the university ecosystem. 

The government might be committed to competition and free choice, but had done absolutely nothing to date to assist the university or its medical school. The Office for Students made no allowance for the fact that we are an independent not-for-profit university, with far more in common with mainstream universities than alternative providers. League tables worked against us: we’ve gone down before we’ll go back up.

My second year, 2016, was particularly difficult, with Brexit followed by a grievous personal loss – which affected me far more than I realised. But we did some good work here together, and as a result the university is now, I believe, in a vastly stronger position than it was in 2015. But my goodness, it’s been hard work.

Second, how hard it is to change the university sector. I campaigned over the five years on many issues including taking student and staff mental health far more seriously; preparing for artificial intelligence and the 4.0 revolution; on vice-chancellors and Universities UK speaking out more strongly and with a more united voice; on enhancing the transition between school and university; on not turning a blind eye to drugs on campus; on enhancing links between schools and university; on embedding volunteering at the heart of universities; on vice-chancellor pay (I cut mine in 2017); and on teaching quality based on peer review and student feedback – does anyone think that the teaching excellence framework has seriously improved the quality of learning and teaching? 

Some of these areas changed, but the pace has been glacial. Trying to make the school sector more liberal and humane was hard. But there I was a big fish in a small sea. Here I was a tiny fish in a vast ocean.

Third, how much more complicated the job of vice-chancellor is compared to that of headmaster of a secondary school, even one with several schools to oversee as I did in my previous role. It’s not just about quantum: universities are vastly bigger than schools. It’s a qualitative difference as well. 

Vice-chancellors have to be financially and legally knowledgeable; they have to persuade staff who don’t want to shift that change is inevitable; they need to be accessible to students, to everybody in the local community and to set the strategic and tactical direction for their university, while being scholars and academic leaders as well. 

At Buckingham, I wrote six books, several booklets and chapters in academic journals and edited volumes, and countless articles. Perhaps I lent too much to my own writing because I knew I could do it, whereas I always felt a bit of an impostor as a vice-chancellor. It follows that my admiration for my fellow vice-chancellors grew immensely over the years, and now I count many of them as my friends.

Fourth, how very important universities are to their local communities. I never before appreciated the economic, cultural and social impact of universities so fully. Those voices who say that “lesser“ universities don’t deserve to survive Covid are ignorant of the existential importance of these very universities to the often disadvantaged communities in which they are rooted. It would be like saying we should close down schools in the bottom third of the league tables. Yet it is those schools, again disproportionately in the most deprived areas, that are often adding the most value to their students, even if their terminal results are not stellar.

Finally, the sheer pace of change that universities must now adjust to. Covid is the biggest challenge to the university sector in history, even if numbers hold up for September 2020 intakes.

It has precipitated changes to the funding model for universities, to the way that students are educated and research conducted, to the jobs that our students are moving on to, and to the society in which they will live. 

For this reason, the fifth and final festival of higher education, which I started in June 2016 with the Higher Education Policy Institute, will be on the many challenges that universities are now facing. Three former university ministers and the incumbent are speaking, as are transformative leaders from around the world like former University of Melbourne vice-chancellor Glyn Davis, Michael Crow, president of Arizona State Universityand UK vice-chancellors Nancy Rothwell and Steve Smith.. 

Thought leaders including Ian Goldin, professor of globalisation and development at the University of Oxford, and Daniel Susskind, a fellow in economics at Balliol College, Oxford, and those who worked in No 10 like Rohan Silva and Rachel Wolf, who know what universities are facing, will also be speaking. 

The free event on 7-8 July  is designed to be provocative but also constructive. If universities respond to the challenges we all face, individually and collectively, we will have a golden future.

I’m confident that this special university will become fully “distinctive” and “distinguished”, but it will only happen after my time. My final thoughts are about my colleagues and students at Buckingham. They have kept me sane and on track, and frequently made me laugh – the best tonic. I only wish I had done a better job for them all. I will miss them dearly.

Anthony Seldon is vice-chancellor at the University of Buckingham

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Reader's comments (4)

What an honest appraisal from Prof Seldon. Such integrity is a mark of leadership. You are not a failure and achievements sometimes take years to manifest. Thank you for your inspiring article.
Outstanding piece.
One of my cherished sector memories is dancing on stage with Sir Anthony to 'Happy' by Pharell Williams at the AUA's (https://aua.ac.uk/ ) National Conference at the Royal Armouries in Leeds back in 2016. I found that you always had an interesting perspective to consider, and I do think the sector will all slightly diminished without your personality and insight cropping up within the networks and across the channels.
Doesn’t look as if Sir Anto met his avowed target of doubling student numbers in 5 years. On a positive note, however, the Uni has a TEF gold and good NSS scores.

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