Leader: It's a smart move to support your vice-chancellor

April 12, 2002

Who runs universities? To the chagrin of vice-chancellors, as accountability and funding difficulties have come to bear, governing bodies, be they councils (of old universities) or governing boards (in new universities), have become more important (page 6-7). Slimmed down in the wake of the Dearing report, they are no longer (or should not be) talking shops. As Walter Greaves wrote in The THES (April 5), their responsibilities have become too serious for amateurism. Like it or not, they are responsible for the financial health of universities, and chief among their responsibilities is the recruitment, remuneration and, if necessary, removal of vice-chancellors.

There is much ambivalence about management in universities. Managers, still usually referred to as "administrators", are a favourite butt of academic scorn. Attempts by holders of senior posts, especially vice-chancellors, to manage or lead are too frequently attacked as "managerialism" and resisted as a matter of principle. While wise leadership is said to be desirable, effective management is thwarted at every turn.

But for universities to flourish in these days of multiple funding and public accountability as secure, independent organisations, they need effective internal management. This does not mean shipping in managers from industry - academics will always run rings round outsiders. It does mean finding and fostering those academics who have a taste and talent for management and, when all the debate and consultation is done, accepting that someone has to take decisions.

Not making decisions has been the undoing of British universities in their battle for autonomy against an increasingly intrusive state. If the price of autonomy is stronger governing bodies prepared to back their vice-chancellors in making tough decisions, then, however hard it comes, academics would be wise to accept it as the lesser evil.

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