Leader: A collegial choice

June 15, 2007

What would be the attributes of your dream vice-chancellor? Someone with the backbone to stand up to the bureaucratic demands of the Quality Assurance Agency? One with the chutzpah to throw off the shackles of the Higher Education Funding Council and its performance indicators, its audit culture and its dreaded research assessment exercise? Or maybe just one who doesn't trouble you with administration?

In the 21st century, such qualities might well be the stuff of nostalgic fantasy. But congratulations to Birmingham University for risking an avalanche of idealistic, and potentially undeliverable, demands from staff as part of its unique exercise in asking its entire workforce to help select its next leader.

At a time when many of its academics, and others across the sector, fear the creep of corporatisation, Birmingham is striking a blow for time-honoured academic collegiality, with a nod to the ancient traditions of universities as self-governing communities of scholars. But in asking staff to participate in focus groups and to consult on the issue of leadership, there are already some cynical voices, so the university must guard against any hint of tokenism. If Birmingham succeeds in starting a true debate about the type of leader modern higher education needs, and if the staff voice can be shown to be truly influential, then let's hope Birmingham's exercise becomes a model of best practice.

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