Talking leadership 32: John Cater on being UK HE’s longest-serving leader

The vice-chancellor of Edge Hill University discusses centralising spending, climbing up the rankings and leading the institution for almost 30 years

六月 28, 2022
John Cater, Edge Hill University
Source: Edge Hill University

In 1993, John Cater was appointed temporary chief executive of Edge Hill College while the board searched for a more suitable candidate to fill the post permanently. Twenty-nine years later, he is still at the institution – now Edge Hill University – and has become UK higher education’s longest-serving leader.

“The chairman of the board called me in and said, ‘You’re the youngest of our PVCs [pro vice-chancellors] and won’t get [the chief executive job], so I’m going to ask you to mind the shop from June until October, by which time we will have gone out and appointed someone,” he recalls.

“Well, they went out in October and didn’t appoint anyone. They went out again in March and didn’t appoint anyone. By that time, I had been doing the job for the best part of 12 months and I just sort of morphed into the job.”

“I think the place didn’t fall apart in those nine months,” he adds, explaining how the short-term appointment became permanent. “And when they went out for advert, because Edge Hill hadn’t got [university] title in 1992, they struggled to attract good candidates.”

Edge Hill has been transformed during Cater’s leadership. The former teacher training college was granted taught degree-awarding powers in 2005 and finally gained university status the following year. In 2008, it was granted the power to award research degrees.

It has been shortlisted for University of the Year in the Times Higher Education Awards five times since 2007 – more than any other institution during that period – and it won the top accolade in 2014. Last year, it was crowned Modern University of the Year in the Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide 2022.

Despite these achievements, Cater is frequently self-deprecating. When asked how he has managed to survive in the job for so long, under seven different chairs of governors, he says: “I’m not so sure, really. Keep my head down, I think.” He says his administrative team would probably describe his leadership approach as “a bit chaotic at times”, admitting that he works on tasks right up until their deadline. He mentions that he is writing a novel, before quickly adding: “They say everyone’s got one novel in them. Well, I probably haven’t.” And at one point, he says: “I’ve spent 30 years trying to find a personality.”

But there is a quiet confidence about Cater, too, as he discusses his ambitions for Edge Hill to climb up the domestic university league tables, his financial strategy and the importance of an inclusive and open institutional culture.

The good fight

“I come from a very poor, working-class background,” Cater says, although he points out that that is not as rare among UK university leaders as some might expect. The eldest of four children, he was born in Northampton and grew up in Towcester, initially in his grandparents’ terrace and then in council houses. He “was shunted around aunts a bit” because his father and sister suffered from mental illness.

“Education gave me my life chances,” he adds, explaining that he passed the 11-plus examination and got into grammar school (although it helped him, he is keen to stress “that doesn’t mean that I believe in selection at 11”). He studied geography at the University of Wales and then completed a PhD at Liverpool Polytechnic (now Liverpool John Moores University).

He interviewed for a postdoctoral position at the University of Cambridge in 1979. In an article for THE in 2020, Cater writes: “I can still smell the furniture polish. I can still see the sweep of the staircase, feel the thickness of the carpet. It was wonderful. But it just was not me. I needed to be in a place where I had to fight.” Two days later, he accepted a lecturing job at Edge Hill and told Cambridge he wasn’t interested in a position there.

A few years after he joined Edge Hill, it was listed for closure by the local authority. The “fight” in the early years was clear: save the institution, obtain degree-awarding powers, gain university title and secure eligibility for research funding. It was tough; there had been little investment in the institution, its portfolio was limited beyond education and student numbers were small.

All that has now changed. Does Cater still feel that he and Edge Hill have to fight, 43 years later?

“I’m not driven by personal ambition. If I was, I would have moved,” he says. But he is “ambitious for Edge Hill”.

His current goal is for the university to move up the domestic university league tables and consistently rank among the top 50, or even top 40, by 2030. Edge Hill is joint 58th in the latest Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide, joint 64th in the Complete University Guide and 70th in the Guardian University Guide.

The mission is less about vanity than survival. Cater believes that the UK government would like to “bifurcate the sector” so it more closely resembles the binary divide of polytechnics and universities before the 1990s – but this time with big metropolitan universities and elite institutions.

His view is that in such a system, Edge Hill does not have the strong industry links or STEM focus to replicate the likes of Manchester Metropolitan University (not least because of its location in the small market town of Ormskirk). Nor does it have the “perceptual status” of institutions such as the University of Manchester or Lancaster University. However, “there is a place for us probably trying to hang on to the coat-tails of the elite, rather than actually competing with the metropolitans”, he says.

“So we’ve got to strengthen our brand, our reputation, our relationships, our league table position,” he adds. “There is a safe haven, but we’re not in that safe haven yet.”

‘Benign despotism’

However, Edge Hill appears to be in a stronger financial position than many modern universities in England. There has been a recent spate of job and course cuts announcements from institutions, including the universities of Wolverhampton and Roehampton, De Montfort University and Bishop Grosseteste University, with the impact of the pandemic and the rising cost of living among the factors cited. Cater says Edge Hill will not be joining that list.

What has been his strategy to get the university on an even footing and remain financially sustainable?

One of his first moves as chief executive was trying to persuade a bank to lend the institution some money so it could grow and develop. Although he wasn’t immediately successful, he convinced a regional manager at Barclays to join its board of governors; about a year later, after gaining confidence in the institution, the manager lent Edge Hill the funds to build a new hall of residence.

Early on in his leadership, Cater also made a decision to centralise spending. Each year, there is a budget challenge process in which every department requests an amount of funding based on its plans for the coming year (although proposals can be made outside that formal process, too); there are no automatic funding allocations. Cater and his senior team also identify the cash surplus they ideally want to generate, and then they reinvest a large proportion of that back into the campus.

“What I didn’t want was 30 leading academics spending their time as third-rate administrators deciding whether they can afford this travel grant or that box of file paper,” he says. “So what we tend to do is to say the money’s in the middle, justify what you need, and then you don’t have to do all the accounting for it.”

While the funding model at Edge Hill could be described as top-down, Cater says it is “meant to be enabling”. Many universities struggle not with a lack of resource, but rather with a “lack of really creative ideas about how to use that resource”, he says. Another benefit of the model is that it encourages collaboration rather than competition, as funding proposals are more likely to be approved if the project involves several departments.

“I might in my more mischievous moments have described it as benign despotism,” he says. “We’re running [the budget], but we’re trying to run it in the interests of the collective, rather than it being dispersed.”

Cater says he has spent about £350 million on the campus during the past 15 years, while the institution has little debt (it owes the bank about £20 million): “What we’ve done is basically scrimped £10 million to £25 million a year and poured that straight back in…We had a very good recruitment year in 2020; we’re doing pretty well in recruitment this year as well. That generates resource, as long as we retain students and give them a good experience. So we try to keep in that kind of virtuous circle.”

He describes the principal purpose of Edge Hill as “to provide people with a high-quality education”, but he is also acutely aware that students “have given you three years of their lives and these are three years which can be transformational”. Cater’s academic specialism is social geography (he has published extensively on race, housing, economic development and public policy), and he says he is “very interested in how you improve life chances”. Just over 70 per cent of undergraduates at the institution come from backgrounds that are under-represented in higher education as a whole, based on data on postcodes, free school meals, disability or full maintenance loans.

With that in mind, the theatre and the cinema on campus are free to students, the sports centre is heavily subsidised and student societies are resourced “quite generously”. Edge Hill housed and fed about 1,300 students, mostly free of charge, during the pandemic, at a cost of about £12 million.

Does Cater find it difficult to make decisions about what to spend money on – and what not to invest in?

“No, we just spend money really,” he says. “I’m more interested in doing the right thing.

“The most important thing in an organisation from my point of view is getting the culture and the ethos right,” he adds. “If the culture and the ethos is right, if people want to be part of it, feel they can influence and shape it, then you’re going to get something which moves forward.”

Instead of telling staff what to do, he asks them what they are good at and how they think they can best contribute to the broader goals of the university. He is also “a big believer in day in, day out communication”. He sends an email to all staff at least once a week – not only the academics and administrators, but also the cleaners and car park attendants. He runs monthly meetings with the board of governors.

“People describe trying to manage academics as herding cats. And there’s some truth in that. But I think the key really is to give people a sense and an understanding of the high-level strategic objectives, the kind of direction of travel, the way in which you like doing things, and get people to buy into that,” he says.

“Communication can facilitate engagement, engagement can facilitate commitment, and maybe commitment can create innovation as well.”

The future of Edge Hill

Cater will turn 70 next year, but he is in no rush to retire.

“I’m going to wake up one morning and think, ‘I don’t want to do this any more.’ But I haven’t reached that morning yet,” he says.

“I’m very lucky. You never know what’s coming round the corner, but I’m healthy, I’m reasonably content with what I do, I think I have a doable job. And if I felt I had a job that wasn’t doable, or if I felt my presence there was damaging rather than enhancing the institution, I’d go like that.”

He says that his proudest achievement has been improving the life chances of thousands of people.

“We’ve supplied tens of thousands of teachers, who in turn will have influenced millions of children. Tens of thousands of people have gone to work in the health service, who will help repair lives. In the end, that’s what it’s about,” he says.

“I work in education because it’s almost a unique chance to improve someone’s life chances, in a way in which almost nothing else is. It sounds so damn corny, but I genuinely believe it.”

How will he feel when the future of Edge Hill is in someone else’s hands?

“I will find it hard to completely let go. That’s almost inevitable, I think,” he says.

“I think I’m OK at the job. There will be people who would make a worse fist of it than me, but I’m sure there will be people who would do the job better as well. And maybe better for the current climate.

“Will I be worried? Well, if they appoint someone who is better than I am at it, then not worried at all.”

Quick facts

Born: Northampton, 3 February 1953

Academic qualifications: BA in geography from the University of Wales; PhD in geography from Liverpool Polytechnic (now Liverpool John Moores University)

Lives with: His partner, Sue. He has two grown-up children.

Academic hero: “I don’t really do ‘heroes’. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, albeit not always in equal measure. But anyone who commits to changing the lives of others for the better gets closest to ‘hero’ status in my book.”

This is part of our “Talking leadership” series of 50 interviews over 50 weeks with the people running the world’s top universities about how they solve common strategic issues and implement change. Follow the series here.



  • 注册是免费的,而且十分便捷
  • 注册成功后,您每月可免费阅读3篇文章
  • 订阅我们的邮件
Please 登录 or 注册 to read this article.