Personal missions and public achievements

September 26, 2003

The change that marks the start of a new academic year is reflected at the highest level as some big-name vice-chancellors bow out and new faces appear. Both those moving out and those moving up will operate in a world in which the line between public and private is blurred. Huw Richards surveys the options available to those stepping down while Alison Goddard and Caroline Davis (below) hear three incoming heads of very different institutions discuss leadership, finances and giving something back.

Money's probably not a worry with several years at a six-figure salary and pension entitlements to match. But what to do next? That's the issue likely to preoccupy this year's departing vice-chancellors, whose numbers include heavyweights such as Anthony Giddens and Sir Alec Broers.

A life of gardening and Saga cruises might seem to beckon, but the sort of person who becomes a vice-chancellor is not really cut out for unrelieved leisure. One option is to go back to research. Mike Shattock, former registrar at Warwick University and visiting professor at the Institute of Education, points out: "Many American universities appoint their deans and presidents simultaneously to a chair in the relevant academic department.

When their period in office is up, they can, if they choose, return to the ranks and quite a few do that."

That is not British practice, but former vice-chancellors such as Essex University's Ron Johnston have returned successfully to their academic roots. Johnston resumed a distinguished career as a human geographer with a chair at Bristol University.

"Lone scholar" disciplines such as history or maths are easier to return to than those requiring teamwork. Kenneth Morgan remained a productive historian while vice-chancellor of Aberystwyth University and has continued to publish in retirement. Sir Derek Birley of Ulster University followed his revisionist cricket history published while in office with four major volumes of sports history written in retirement.

However, Peter Knight, for 19 years vice-chancellor of the University of Central England and originally a physicist, has no plans to go back to physics when he retires. "It is simply impossible to keep up with research," he says. But some have done it: Sir Eric Ash, a former vice-president of the Royal Society and rector of Imperial College London, returned to University College London as an academic physicist.

One advantage of research is you can do it off your own bat. By contrast, classic post-vice-chancellor roles - "an Oxbridge college and a peerage" - require an appointment. Current examples include Sir Gareth Roberts, formerly of Sheffield University and now of Wolfson College, Oxford, and Sir Tim Lankester, who moved from the School of Oriental and African Studies to Corpus Christi, Oxford. Sir John Kingman, formerly of Bristol, has combined subject (maths) and administrative expertise as head of the Sir Isaac Newton Institute in Cambridge. And serial vice-chancellor Sir Graeme Davies, who left Glasgow University this summer, has found a retirement job - as vice-chancellor of the University of London.

Former vice-chancellors have been well-represented in the House of Lords since the introduction of life peers, not always to the delight of governments who found higher education legislation lacerated in the Upper House. Current members include Kenneth Morgan (formerly of Aberystwyth), Trevor Smith (Ulster) and Stuart Sutherland (London and Edinburgh). But they may be the last of the line. Discussion of Lords reform has halted the creation of life peers; its implementation might end them. There will, though, be other "great and good" roles to fill. Shattock says: "If you've been a high-profile head of a well-regarded institution, you get plenty of offers. All three vice-chancellors I worked for at Warwick went on to other things."

Sir Brian Follett, the last of the Warwick trio, has just been appointed to head the Teacher Training Agency (succeeding another former vice-chancellor, Sir Clive Booth), having previously been chair of the Arts and Humanities Research Board and professor of zoology at Oxford since leaving Warwick in 2001. Sir Frederick Crawford, formerly of Aston University, has for several years been chair of the Criminal Cases Review Commission.

Even if the bodies in question are comparatively new, these are the kinds of public appointments that former vice-chancellors have traditionally been given. But things may be changing. John Ashworth, vice-chancellor of Salford University, director of the London School of Economics and a board member of Granada and Sainsbury's, was something of a forerunner. He is closer to the private sector than his predecessors were. Are the growing links between industry and higher education likely to make this a common career progression?

Shattock does not think so. "Vice-chancellors have run large, complex operations. But in appointing non-executive directors, business tends to look for people with specialised knowledge of particular sectors, and they (vice-chancellors) are unlikely to have that."

But a top corporate headhunter anticipates change. "We don't have a trend yet," he says. "But vice-chancellors increasingly see themselves as chief executive officers, act like them and may have skills and experience that are attractive to business. Companies that are reliant on research expertise may be more interested than they have been."

He cites Sir Martin Harris' deputy chairmanship of the North West Regional Development Agency. Appointments in private industry may remain the province of a few, but it seems likely that - in line with the changing nature of universities - public-private partnership jobs will start to supplement more traditional public service posts.

It would, though, take huge political and institutional change for UK heads of universities to aspire to emulate their US counterparts Woodrow Wilson (Princeton University) and Dwight Eisenhower (Columbia University), who were both elected to a grander and far more powerful presidential office within two years of leaving university ones.

WHEN I'M 65...

Fiery start to end of an era

Sir George Bain looks forward to regaining control of his life once he leaves Queen's University, Belfast, at the end of the academic year. He has enjoyed being vice-chancellor, but he says: "As a vice-chancellor, your life is to a great degree dictated by what is in your diary rather than what you want to do."

Though an industrial relations academic, he is a historian manque: "Most of my reading is history. What really fascinates me is Irish history, and that's where I expect to focus my research - possibly on emigration, which has always interested me, perhaps because my own family were emigrants."

He has yet to find a precise subject, but says he was in the same position at Oxford University 40 years ago before he started his doctoral research.

"If I could do it at 23, I hope I can do it now. I may not have the energy I had then, but I know a lot more," he says.

He intends to stay in Northern Ireland for the foreseeable future, and he also plans to pursue piano-playing and European-style horse riding.

He will also continue existing commitments such as a non-executive directorship of Canada Life. Having already served as minimum-wage commissioner and arbiter on the firemen's dispute, he is open to similar public service offers, "although I'd prefer it if they were a little less exciting than the firemen's dispute turned out to be".

Any such role, though, will be outside higher education: "I have already been approached about some HE roles, but I take the view that future policy should be in the hands of people who bring freshness to it, not old warhorses who have had 40 years in the system."

Merger means it's time to go

Sir Martin Harris will leave Manchester University at the end of the academic year - a little earlier than he had originally intended.

That departure is, ironically, the result of what may be seen as his greatest achievement in 11 years at Manchester, the completion of the merger with the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology: "It is the right moment to go, but I'll be only just over 60 so I'm not looking to retire completely yet."

At the same time, he won't seek another full-time role. Instead, he'll be looking to create a portfolio of activities. He has already been appointed deputy chairman of the North West Regional Development Authority.

Returning to his academic discipline as a linguist is not an option - "the gap is too large, and I say that very sadly" - but he has found ample intellectual compensation over the years in management challenges.

He is also keen to find some national role, possibly with the National Health Service. "I've done a lot of work with the NHS as a lay person over the past decade and have handled health for Universities UK (he was chair of the organisation's predecessor)," he explains.

National arena holds appeal

No current vice-chancellor has given longer service in the senior management of a single institution than Mike Goldsteinn , who will retire as vice-chancellor of Coventry University at the end of the academic year.

While his 17 years as vice-chancellor place him second in seniority to Peter Knight at the University of Central England, he spent the four years before his appointment as deputy at Coventry.

Having worked to the age of 65, he won't be seeking further paid employment. Nor will he be returning to his former discipline of chemistry.

"I've been away for 20 years, and I can hardly understand the articles in the professional journal that is still sent to me," he says.

A return to his London roots is also out. "I want to go on making my contribution to this part of the world," he says.

Citing his experience of national policy-making as chair of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, he says he would welcome another national role - though not necessarily one in higher education.

"I feel I could make a contribution in an area like economic development as well."

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