It's the team that takes the credit

University Leadership

June 1, 2001

When there were only a few universities, vice-chancellors had very high status: they were national figures as much at ease in Whitehall as in their own senate meetings. But when the number of universities doubled and then doubled again in a period of 40 years, their status fell and they now look less interesting as subjects of academic scrutiny. Even the annual publication of their salaries, so much in excess of most of their academic colleagues, has tended to locate them somewhere among the ranks of chief executives in medium-sized companies rather than at the top levels that past traditions might suggest.

This book opens with a brilliant and provocative account of the transformation of higher education that one might expect to be followed by an account of transformational leaders. On the contrary, the authors paint a very different and much greyer picture. Despite the public rhetoric about chief executives and greater managerialism, vice-chancellors appear to continue to be drawn from "similar predominantly academic backgrounds", and there is little evidence of a shift towards "a more executive interpretation of the post". The job, it seems, is more political than managerial, with a greater concentration on academic management than leadership. Vice-chancellors work long hours, but the way they spend their time oscillates between "high strategy and minor house-keeping". One reading of these findings is that the job is so crunched between pressures from above - funding difficulties, research assessment, accountability, local and regional imperatives, attending meetings - and from below - failing departments, underpaid and disgruntled colleagues, low morale and bureaucracy - that individuality and leadership characteristics are simply extinguished.

I am not sure that is an altogether fair picture. It is easy to see cases in the old and in the new universities where vice-chancellors do seem to have left or are leaving an indelible mark on their institutions. At one or two others, however, an undue emphasis on vice-chancellorial leadership seems to have led to disaster. The authors' research methodology has tended to produce a more homogeneous picture than reality warrants.

One might have expected a sharp differentiation in style and background between vice-chancellors of old and new universities, but the authors insist not. It might have been interesting to have analysed responses by size of institution and by make-up. A university with more than 25,000 students would seem to present different challenges from one of 8,000 students. A northern civic university with a medical school makes very different demands from a metropolitan social science-based institution. Such differences dictate differences in leadership and managerial style that contradict the impression of homogeneity. Certainly universities are very conscious of such differences when they seek a vice-chancellor. Indeed, the absence of any account of the selection process for vice-chancellors' posts is rather a serious omission because it might have cast light on the discussion of why universities, if indeed it is the case, are conservative in the kind of vice-chancellors they appoint.

The appointment process is important for another reason. All too often an appointment is made in reaction to the characteristics of the previous holder of the post. After a charismatic leader, when institutional feathers have been ruffled, selection committees tend to look for consolidators or consensus builders; after managers they look for scholars; after vice-chancellors who are externally oriented they want someone who will look after the shop.

It is at least possible to argue that the period 1945-60 saw vice-chancellors' powers at their greatest, and when they were the most free to run their universities in a personal and dominant style. They had status and national influence, funds were available for postwar building programmes, institutions were small and committee systems were weak. By the 1960s, the role had begun to change as the moves towards more internal democracy and participation began to constrain their freedom of action. Committee checks and balances proliferated, senates grew in power and influence, and student protest developed. These combined to increase bureaucracy and slow decision making. On this reading, the Jarratt committee view of the vice-chancellor as a chief executive was as much a reaction against an encroachment on the powers of vice-chancellors over the previous 25 years as it was an expression of a Thatcherite managerialist style.

More than a decade on from Jarratt, it is worth reflecting that university chief executives have not emerged in quite the way recommended. Is it because selection committees appointed the wrong people, because the people appointed were schooled in a bureaucratic age, or because institutions fought against their becoming chief executives? No doubt there is some truth driving each of these queries. But it is also because, in a period of continuous financial stringency, the leadership and management of universities increasingly depend more on the effectiveness of what in some universities is called "the senior management team" than on a single person. This team has taken over many of the powers previously exercised by the vice-chancellor simply because the range of detail, the complexity and the degree of internal consultation required is too much for one person. If we want to know more about the leadership of universities, we need also to study these management teams, whom they comprise, what their educational and social backgrounds are, and how they interact in the process of pushing their institutions forward.

Michael Shattock is visiting professor, Institute of Education, University of London.

University Leadership: The Role of the Chief Executive

Author - Catherine Bargh, Jean Bocock, Peter Scott and David Smith
ISBN - 0 335 20487 2 and 20488 0
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £60.00 and £19.99
Pages - 175

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