Should heads of universities be appointed or elected? Harriet Swain finds the UK and Europe do things very differently
All in favour: should heads of UK institutions be asked to add electoral skills to their managerial and fundraising roles?
More than a dozen heads of UK higher education institutions will quit their posts over the next couple of years, prompting a flurry of newspaper advertisements for replacements.
The School of Oriental and African Studies will be looking to replace its director, Sir Timothy Lankester, with either "an academic with an international reputation and senior management experience" or someone from another field with "academic credibility". Successful candidates must be communicators, motivators, innovators and "interested and experienced in fundraising".
The University of Bristol, which recently announced that its new vice-chancellor would be Eric Thomas, deputy vice-chancellor (designate) at the University of Southampton, wanted "an outstanding scholar with a sound and substantial track record in senior management", "vision", "leadership skills" and "familiarity with ... the process of fundraising".
If the skills sought seem to have much in common with business, so does the appointments process.
For most universities it involves advertisements placed nationally and internationally as well as headhunters and appointment panels, who seek input from representative staff and student groups to define and find ideal candidates.
Kenneth Dixon, chairman of the Committee of University Chairmen, says:
"Over the past ten years the biggest change has been the greater use of consultants. People believe, as they do in industry, that if you rely only on your advertisements or networks you will miss a lot of capable candidates. This way, you get a wider field and a more objective process."
Gavin Mackenzie, director of the education practice at headhunters Saxton Bampfylde, says it is unusual for universities not to seek outside help when appointing a head. What has also changed, he says, is that new and old universities are no longer looking for the same type of person. Financial, business and fundraising skills are more important for old universities, while new universities are stressing the value of a strong research background.
The UK system is similar to that in the US, where university presidents, who do not always hold tenure, are appointed - and sacked - by the board. Headhunters are also increasingly important, especially in private universities. Staff and student representatives are usually consulted about the type of person they would like. In public universities, the interview might include a presentation by a candidate to faculty and students.
But things are done very differently in the rest of Europe, where electoral bodies dominated by staff tend to hold sway. Eligibility to vote differs from country to country and is usually enshrined in legislation, although variations exist between institutions. Voters might be the senate, the professors, or the professors plus student and other staff representatives and possibly outside experts. Democratic principles have traditionally extended throughout the institution, with elected deans and staff and student representatives, although there is a trend towards more centralised systems.
In some countries, such as Germany and France, the government is involved in appointing the president or rector, although it is usually a matter of officially confirming appointments already informally made by the institution.
Politics comes into elections far less than it did in the late 1960s, when many of the present electoral systems were set up. Although in October 1997 the election of rector at Europe's largest university, La Sapienza in Rome, led to discussions in the Italian parliament after claims that the university minister, Luigi Berlinguer, had masterminded a plot to oust rector Giorgio Tecce. Mr Berlinguer and Mr Tecce had clashed over government plans to split La Sapienza into smaller universities.
Giuseppe D'Ascenzo, head of the faculty of science, was eventually given the job, after a series of inconclusive ballots and accusations from both sides.
Michael Shattock, visiting professor at the Institute of Education, was visiting Spain last month on the day when one of its major universities, Leon in Castile, was holding elections for rector and the national football team was playing Yugoslavia in the European Cup.
The elections started at 8pm, shortly after the end of the match, and 800 members of the university immediately queued to vote for their favourite of the three candidates who had put themselves forward. One was the vice-rector for research, another was a disappointed candidate in the previous election and the third was more of a maverick. The previously unsuccessful candidate won the post.
While the elections involve manifestos, publicity and appeals to rival factions, they can also be gentlemanly affairs in which humanities and science faculties each have a fair share of successful candidates.
This has been made easier by the fact that in many European countries the president or rector had relatively little power. But this is changing. Decreasing state funding and control means rectors and other senior staff are taking on more responsibility and so need more management skills.
In Switzerland, where university presidents are usually also cantonal ministers of education, recent reforms mean the two federal polytechnics will be run by a financially independent council, and universities are demanding similar changes.
A recent government proposal in Norway suggested rectors should be appointed by a governing body, with the ministry of education appointing the majority of members.
Until 1997, the senate appointed presidents of the National University of Ireland by a selection process that started in the faculties and usually resulted in an internal appointment. Now, the process varies between the four university colleges, but tends to rely on appointments committees' recommendations to a governing body, sometimes aided by headhunters.
Professor Shattock says, however, that changes to the way appointments are made in most European countries will be slow. "The roots of academic democracy run deep in the psyche. It will take another big culture shift in university autonomy to alter this," he says. He also thinks the continental system generally works well.
But to Sheldon Steinbach, general counsel for the American Council on Education, the system is "a hangover from medieval times" and change is inevitable.
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A number of university heads are due to leave their posts over the next couple of years.
* Sir Gareth Roberts, vice-chancellor, Sheffield University
* Sir Brian Follett, vice-chancellor, Warwick University
* James Wright, vice-chancellor, Newcastle University
* Lord Oxburgh, rector, Imperial College
* Sir John Kingman, vice-chancellor, Bristol University
* Maxwell Irvine, vice-chancellor, Birmingham University
* Sir Brian Smith, vice-chancellor, Cardiff University
* Sir Timothy Lankester, director and principal, SOAS
* Harrison Spencer, dean, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
* Peter Mortimore, director, Institute of Education
* Peter Toyne, vice-chancellor, Liverpool John Moores
* David Wills, acting vice-chancellor, University of Greenwich
* Ian Graham-Bryce, principal and vice-chancellor, Dundee
* Roger King, vice-chancellor, Lincolnshire and Humberside
* Colin Vincent, acting principal, St Andrews University
* Sir John Arbuthnott, principal and vice-chancellor, Strathclyde