Masters of the hunt

July 30, 1999

If you need a new vice-chancellor in a hurry, who do you call? Phil Batty reports on the headhunters whose latest task is to fill the top slot at crisis-ridden Thames Valley University

Governors: has the principal been forced out after a vote of no confidence from staff? Is your institution collapsing under disastrous leadership? Then it might be time to call in the headhunters. For about Pounds 35,000, employment consultants Saxton Bampfylde Hever will find you a new leader.

After recruiting new heads to lead recovery plans at the crisis-hit universities of Portsmouth, Huddersfield and Bournemouth and the troubled Southampton Institute, Saxton Bampfylde's latest challenge is to coax another unlikely hero to step forward to take on the task of saving failing Thames Valley University. Tipped for the post is former De Montfort chief Kenneth Barker, who, if he accepts, will become the 29th vice-chancellor put in place by the firm.

So what makes a university saviour?

"Universities are like fingerprints," says Saxton Bampfylde director Anthony Saxton. "There are organisations in different states of development."

With Thames Valley, the brief was clear. Former vice-chancellor Mike Fitzgerald was forced out last year after the Quality Assurance Agency reported that the university could no longer be trusted to safeguard the quality of its own degrees. Mismanagement, a financial crisis and the ensuing publicity led to severe recruitment problems.

"The university has a detailed rescue plan," Saxton says. "We needed someone with a track record of financial and real-estate skills. The leader of TVU will have to sell buildings, restructure and abolish courses and implement a programme of redundancies. But most of all he will be expected to produce a 2 per cent surplus by summer 2002. We needed a massive manager. A scholarly record was not required."

Whether Barker does take up the TVU post remains to be seen. But Saxton Bampfylde appears to have got things largely right in the past. At Southampton Institute, principal David Leyland was forced into early retirement in 1998 after damning investigations into his management of Southampton's overseas operations. Roger Brown, head of the then Higher Education Quality Council, helped unravel the mess. Saxton Bampfylde manoeuvred Brown into the principal's office. Staff now seem happy.

At Huddersfield, one of the first new universities to run into management trouble shortly after incorporation, Saxton Bampfylde appointed Sir William Taylor from Hull as a troubleshooter after the resignation of the vice-chancellor. He was so successful he was called into TVU last year to troubleshoot again.

But different institutions require different personalities. Gavin Mackenzie, director of Saxton Bampfylde's education practice, points to the University of East Anglia, another of the company's clients. UEA, through Mackenzie, appointed Elizabeth Esteve-Coll, then director of London's Victoria and Albert museum, as its vice-chancellor in 1995.

"UEA was a good university, driven by research, but no one knew about it," he says. "UEA saw itself as a well-kept secret and wanted to raise its profile. The V&A was in everybody's address book and Dame Elizabeth had presided over a remarkable turnaround there. She thought the idea was nuts at first, but it was our task to convince her." After "months of meetings in a darkened coffee bar at the Hotel Rembrandt, outside the V&A", she finally agreed.

Whatever the views of her success as a vice-chancellor, Esteve-Coll made an immediate impact in her profile-raising role. Her appointment was met with howls of student protest after rumours that she had refurbished her university residence to the tune of tens of thousands of pounds.

But her tenure was short. Esteve-Coll was forced into early retirement with multiple sclerosis in early 1997. "By that time," Mackenzie says, "the university's profile had been raised and the brief was different. The governors were more interested in solid management." Saxton Bampfylde then found Vincent Watts at Andersen Consulting, who was appointed to head UEA last year.

Headhunting has exploded in higher education. In an increasingly competitive environment, senior personnel management is big business. Universities now make up a fifth of Saxton Bampfylde's Pounds 4.5 million turnover. From humble beginnings 12 years ago, Saxton Bampfylde boasts that as well as 29 vice-chancellors, it has recruited 15 higher education college principals, 37 senior university officers and 24 professors.

Its list of coups includes the appointment of former THES editor Peter Scott as head of Kingston University, and the controversial move by former London Business School director George Bain to Queen's University, Belfast.

Finding the right candidate is a delicate process. "We start by asking the universities who they would like to interview," Mackenzie says. "A common suggestion is Richard Branson. After the last election we had a lot of inquiries about former ministers, such as Chris Patten. Some universities urgently need to confront financial problems, others may be concerned to boost their research performance. But we like to get under their skin and ask them to be honest with us." A job description and profile are compiled and two full-time researchers "live on the phone" and build a list.

"One thing that has really driven this market is that we got into it at a crunch time - when student numbers were growing and the unit of resource was diminishing, and universities were getting big, big business problems," Saxton says. Vice-chancellors have had to start to become business brains.

There has been a diminishing difference in managerial style between old and new universities. "Most old universities still look for academic excellence," Mackenzie says, "while new universities are more interested in management expertise. But it is blurring I Old universities must get better at teaching and new universities are popping up in the RAE."

No university can now afford to ignore the realities of business, but some still have a long way to go. "We see vice-chancellors who do not enjoy coming to terms with the realities of having to plan for the future in the current climate," Saxton says. Less charitably, Mackenzie adds: "There are vice-chancellors in posts who might not get on the shortlist for their own jobs if they applied now."

In fact, the headhunters are planning to commission research into the link between a vice-chancellor's academic standing and the performance of the college. "I don't think there will be much of a correlation," Saxton says.

Private sector fat cats tend not to be interested in universities, with their relatively low salaries. "Approaches can be frustrated," Mackenzie says. "A university with a Pounds 200 million turnover might say that if a finance director can save 2 per cent, they will pay Pounds 70-80,000. But if you can only pay Pounds 45,000..." And there is another cultural difference - accountability for taxpayers' money and the spectre of a workforce that has an enshrined academic right to be critical. Mackenzie says: "Someone steeped in private-sector lore may think higher education is not for them. It is a different form of leadership - most vice-chancellors cannot just tell people what to do."

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