In today's commercial world, universities must abandon their intellectual snobbery and allow non-academic staff to take over as vice-chancellors, according to a leading registrar, writes Anna Fazackerley.
David Allen, chair of the Association of Heads of University Administration, hit out at selection committees and headhunters who were wooed by research records rather than the technical experience of running a university.
Mr Allen, who is registrar and secretary at Exeter University, said:
"Clearly you've got to understand academics, but why do you have to have the T-shirt?
"There are plenty of people in universities who are excellent leaders and managers but who are not members of the academic tribe."
His comments will spark controversy at a time of major turnover at the top in universities, as headhunters struggle to find sufficient high-calibre candidates to fill their longlists.
Although there appears to be an increasing realisation that business skills from outside the sector might be a bonus, universities cling tightly to the notion that their chief executive must also be a top-drawer academic.
Registrars with no research credentials almost never make the grade.
Mr Allen said that National Health Service trusts now tended to be run by managers rather than doctors, adding that universities should follow the same model.
He said that the academic ability requirement was also ensuring that vice-chancellors weren't getting any younger, because they had to publish papers and serve time as a head of department, dean or pro vice-chancellor before getting the job.
He said: "Many of the young people coming into university management are just as well qualified as an academic, with first-class degrees from Oxford or Cambridge. They want to know how far they can get and whether they can be a vice-chancellor. Technically, the answer is 'yes'. But really I have to tell them 'no'."
But Glynis Breakwell, vice-chancellor of Bath University, said: "This is a very radical solution. If that were to happen, you would have to change the whole senior management team to compensate. Universities do need academic leadership. It is not something that should be discounted, but it is not the answer I would turn to."
Ewart Wooldridge, chief executive of the Leadership Foundation for higher education, said: "The issue for anyone who has not got the academic background is that they would need to have the skill to gain the trust and confidence of a complex academic community. Not everyone would succeed."