Analysis: why are v-cs heading for the door?

Reasons for a spate of exits include more pressure and pension limits

July 24, 2014

Source: Kobal

Exit strategies: some people believe that the new higher education market is creating greater uncertainty for those leading institutions

Recently, it has seemed like every week brings news that another vice-chancellor is leaving their post. In a few cases, vice-chancellors have been stepping down under varying degrees of pressure.

What is behind the glut of departures? To some observers, it looks as though a few heads have been claimed by the new higher education market, which has brought intense pressure to hit targets on student numbers and income, along with greater scrutiny of strategy and performance. To others, the explanation is more prosaic: many are reaching retirement age while a lower cap on contributions to their enviable pension pots means that vice-chancellors are less inclined to hang around.

Some announcements have been sudden.

Patrick McGhee left the University of East London for health reasons in January 2013. Times Higher Education later revealed that Professor McGhee was also under pressure after the failure of a Cyprus campus aimed at raising revenue for the institution – the operation closed after recruiting just 17 students. He is now assistant vice-chancellor for quality assurance at the University of Bolton.

Chris Higgins announced in March that he would step down as vice-chancellor of Durham University in September. The announcement was made soon after a vote by the university’s senate over whether to reduce his powers, THE revealed.

Wendy Purcell, the Plymouth University vice-chancellor, was “placed on leave” by the university’s board of governors last month, although her future is still unclear.

Several other vice-chancellors have within the past year made public their intention to step down without any sign of the announcement being sudden: Don Nutbeam at the University of Southampton, Sir Howard Newby at the University of Liverpool, Eric Thomas at the University of Bristol, Malcolm Gillies at London Metropolitan University, Ruth Farwell at Bucks New University, Edward Acton at the University of East Anglia, John Brooks at Manchester Metropolitan University, Martin Bean at The Open University (who is leaving for RMIT University in Australia) and, among private institutions, Terence Kealey at the University of Buckingham and Nigel Savage at the University of Law.

Speaking generally, Sir Peter Scott, chair of the University of Gloucestershire’s governing council and former vice-chancellor of Kingston University, said that it is “certainly true that the new HE ‘market’ is creating greater uncertainty – or, at any rate, the perception of greater uncertainty”.

The professor of higher education studies at the Institute of Education, University of London, argued that university councils and governing bodies “are too passive for too long when there is clearly evidence [that] management strategies are not working”. This is partly because it is “difficult for them to act collectively because they only meet up in formal settings”, which means that they “can’t share any emerging worries they may have”, he added.

“Then what tends to happen is they act too late, and panic and fire the v-c,” continued Sir Peter, who made clear he was not speaking about recent high-profile cases. “So there isn’t much middle ground between being too trusting [or] passive and taking extreme measures – which may be unfair to the v-c who may be able to argue…that no one had raised any serious concerns.”

Aldwyn Cooper, who observes the “traditional” sector from his post as vice-chancellor of private, non-profit Regent’s University London, said that the pace of change in higher education is “an unpalatable prospect” for some vice-chancellors, “while for others it presents exciting opportunities”.

He added: “The former are probably well advised to move aside. The latter often face challenges from their governing bodies, who often hold more ingrained and risk-averse perspectives than the better v-cs. The end result is frustration leading to the departure of the v-c, or conflict which leads to removal.”

Confluence of coincidence

Carl Lygo, vice-chancellor of for-profit owned BPP University, said that the idea “that a v-c is just a ‘safe pair of hands’ or custodian to a long line of tradition seems to be fast disappearing”.

He cited high salaries, university boards with corporate representation and rapid feedback from students on social media as being among the factors that “all add up to this being more than the chief academic officer’s role of old. V-cs are now expected to have the corporate nous of a FTSE 100 CEO, and there’s no sympathy from anyone if they don’t make a success of every decision.”

In addition, recent changes to tax relief on pension contributions mean that many vice-chancellors have now maxed out the amount that they can pour into their pots, leading many to retire early instead of staying on to build 40 years of accruals, as they might previously have done.

Paul Curran, vice-chancellor of City University London and chair of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, pointed to the pensions issue as well as the fact that those from the baby boomer generation are now reaching retirement age, and the coincidence in the ending of several seven-year fixed-term contracts used for vice-chancellors at some older universities.

He said that the spate of vice-chancellor departures “has more to do with the retirement of those born shortly after the Second World War, a cycle generated by the coincidence of fixed-term contracts and recent opting-out of the USS pension scheme than it has to do with market pressures in the sector”.

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