In the modern university, size matters. And as campuses continue to get bigger, so too do the responsibilities of the v-c. Harriet Swain reports.
The surprise proposal of marriage between University College London and Imperial College, which has caused such a buzz in the higher education world, signals not only a new trend in types of university - big numbers of students, big turnovers, big appeal to funders - but also the need for a new kind of university leader. Rather than work his way up a series of dreaming spires, Sir Richard Sykes, who would take over as head of the merged institution, arrived as rector of Imperial straight from the chairmanship of pharmaceutical company GlaxoWellcome. He is the epitome of the vice-chancellor as chief executive that has been mooted since Sir Alex Jarratt wrote his report on university structures in 1985.
Whether vice-chancellors have actually begun to resemble their business counterparts as much as Jarratt predicted is open to question. Headhunters report that, while most universities are more than willing to consider applicants from outside the sector, the final choice is almost always an insider. In the words of one: "The ideal vice-chancellor is someone who has the warm-bloodedness of an individual who is genuinely committed to the academic situation, combined with the cold-bloodedness of a chief executive. If someone doesn't have that warm-bloodedness, they will struggle because the lack of it will communicate itself to all concerned."
The fact that universities almost always employ headhunters to appoint vice-chancellors (Cambridge University is using them to help find a replacement for Sir Alec Broers, who leaves next year) is one indication of how the role of vice-chancellor has become closer to that of a business leader. Most demand about a third of the vice-chancellor's first annual salary as payment. Job advertisements also make clear that the job of a vice-chancellor has become much more business-like, with the emphasis on fundraising, motivation and "vision".
Michael Shattock, former registrar at Warwick University, who has set up an MBA in higher education and management at the Institute of Education in London, says new "mega" institutions such as the UCL/Imperial proposal, the agreed merger of Manchester University-University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology and the new London Metropolitan University, created from the merger of London Guildhall and the University of North London, will demand new skills. As will the government's policy of increasing numbers of students across the board. "Size makes a huge difference," he says. "The number of people you know on the campus doesn't grow, but the number of people on the campus does grow enormously. Your job becomes much more a rather distant managing director than a hands-on operator."
Greater accountability and the resulting paperwork have also made a difference to the vice-chancellor's job in recent years, he says. A university head now has to rely more than ever on professional administrators to deal with the intricacies of funding formulae, for example. The same is true of universities' increasing role in their region. A representative from the higher education institution is now expected to attend meetings of the regional development agency and to contribute to decisions. Vice-chancellors either have to go themselves or have to delegate, and will again have to rely on people in the know to advise on business and other opportunities.
Finally, the research assessment exercise has introduced a bidding culture between and within universities, with vice-chancellors often at the centre.
David Smith, principal research fellow in the school of education at Leeds University, and one of the authors of the report University Leadership: The Role of the Chief Executive, says that while many vice-chancellors have picked up the language of a chief executive, in terms of talking about leadership, the need to enthuse people and the need to "take the institution forward", the reality of their job on the ground appears to be different. The deeply entrenched culture of consultation and autonomy in higher education does not allow vice-chancellors to act quite as dictatorially as a chief executive in a business environment. Furthermore, many vice-chancellors have an allegiance to their discipline and to their own, often continuing, research careers, as well as having to respond to the latest policy initiatives from government.
The research also found that while vice-chancellors talked constantly in terms of strategy, a shadowing exercise revealed that they seemed to spend large periods of time embroiled in day-to-day troubleshooting. Rosemary Deem, professor of education at the graduate school of education at Bristol University, who led a two-year study into management of universities, confirmed this. "When it came to details, strategy was something they talked a lot about but didn't necessarily do," she said. The exception is when they are new in post, when, she says, there is a strong sense that they have to do something big in terms of restructuring or reorganising an institution.
Nevertheless, she does believe the job is changing. She found the gap between vice-chancellors and other university staff appeared to be increasing - not just in terms of salary but in terms of the nature of what they do. "They have always been figureheads for their institutions, but now they talk a lot about money - everyone we talked to talked about money but vice-chancellors did more than anyone else, except finance directors. A lot of what they do is networking, going to dinners, inviting people to dinners, a lot of wining and dining. It is perhaps moving closer to the American idea of the president of an institution."
One result may be the emergence of a clearer career path towards the vice-chancellorship. In the UK it is virtually impossible to map out a route to the top job - and not just because, as Deem points out: "People in nursery schools don't say: 'I want to be a vice-chancellor when I grow up.'" The present system, even with the presence of headhunters, still remains one based on serendipity, gossip and not making big mistakes in more minor management roles. But there is evidence of change. The average length of time a vice-chancellor spends in post has dropped considerably - one headhunter puts it at about four-and-a-half years. It is also more common for vice-chancellors to move from one institution to another. David VandeLinde recently moved from Bath University to Warwick, Tim O'Shea from Birkbeck College to Edinburgh University, Colin Bell from Bradford University to Stirling University. Then there is the increased emphasis on training. The Higher Education Funding Council for England is asking universities for strategies on leadership, management and governance; Universities UK is looking at senior staff development; and the University of Surrey has offered a management programme - headed by Robin Middlehurst - for the past three years.
For the time being, vice-chancellors appear much the same as they always were - men in their 50s, with impressive research records and a decent performance in some university management role behind them. But the advertisement placed by headhunters for the next director of the London School of Economics could point the way forward. It lists a number of requirements and, in addition, suggests "knowledge of higher education would be useful".