Foreign signings plug gaps

September 5, 2003

Does the UK lack the talent to lead its universities? Claire Sanders reports.

UK vice-chancellors, like football managers, are increasingly being recruited from abroad.

The announcement that Alan Gilbert, vice-chancellor of Melbourne University, will head the newly merged Manchester University comes hot on the heels of the appointment of John Hood, vice-chancellor of Auckland University, as Oxford's next vice-chancellor. And from October, Alison Richard, provost of Yale University, takes charge at Cambridge University.

Add these names to Steven Schwartz, David Vande Linde and Rick Trainor at the universities of Brunel, Warwick and Greenwich respectively, and the question arises: what is wrong with home-grown talent?

"Nothing," according to Ivor Crewe, president of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of Essex University. "Vice-chancellors have always been recruited from an international market. In fact, the present vice-chancellor of Cambridge (Sir Alec Broers) originally came from Australia. It is a sign of the strength and vibrancy of UK higher education that we can recruit from overseas."

David Ward, president of the American Council on Education, said that the appointment of vice-chancellors from overseas to UK universities was part of a trend by key universities to appoint leaders with proven track records. "Prestigious universities in the US are increasingly taking on presidents who have already been successful elsewhere," he said.

What the UK needed to develop, he argued, was a more experienced middle management. "When I was chancellor of Wisconsin University I was aware that a predecessor had been a weak leader. The university was able to withstand a weak chancellor because the provost and deans were strong. That cadre of people needs building up in the UK."

There have long been murmurs of discontent about university management.

Rumours abound that ministers are unhappy with management of new universities, of old universities, of Oxbridge.

Chancellor Gordon Brown recruited Richard Lambert, former editor of the Financial Times, to examine the long-term links between British businesses and universities and to review university governance.

In his interim report, published in July, Mr Lambert is quite specific about universities' shortcomings. "The perception is of a sector that is slow moving and bureaucratic, difficult to navigate and risk averse," he writes.

Cambridge, and to a lesser extent, Oxford, came in for particular criticism. "They face a leadership challenge of the highest order, and the outcome is a matter of public interest that stretches well beyond the confines of the two universities," the report says.

Professor Crewe said that the best measure of the quality of management was output. "Judged on output, UK universities are doing well," he said.

Diana Green, vice-chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University and a member of the foundation's interim board, said: "When ministers are pressed for models of good management and Enron and the National Health Service are mentioned then their case appears shaky."

But vice-chancellors are not complacent. Earlier this year an advert went out for the chief executive of the new Leadership Foundation, a Universities UK and Standing Conference of Principals' initiative endorsed in the higher education white paper. Adverts for the chair and board members are imminent and vice-chancellors will discuss the Lambert review and leadership issues when they hold their annual conference at Warwick next week.

"The Leadership Foundation is not being set up to address gaps that need to be filled," said Professor Crewe, who is on the interim board. "It will look ahead at what the likely requirements will be on vice-chancellors over the next ten to 15 years and prepare for them. It will put the UK ahead of most other countries."

The business case for the foundation, prepared by Adrian Smith, principal of Queen Mary, University of London, says: "The sector recognises that what has been achieved to date has not been without cost (in terms of financial deficits, long-term maintenance of the estate and pressures on staff recruitment, retention and morale) and that the economic, technological and political challenges ahead are unprecedented."

Reporting on surveys of senior managers' experience and expectations of leadership and management, it paints a picture of discontent: "A majority of respondents agreed that formal management training was essential for effective senior management."

An international survey, commissioned by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, of seven other English-speaking higher education systems highlighted a shortfall at national level: "While the UK has comparable award-bearing provision (including specialist HE programmes), the range and volume of non-award-bearing provision is less than in competitor countries. The UK is also not well served in the quantity and range of focused research on higher education leadership and management at institutional and national levels."

The four UK funding bodies have earmarked £10 million for the foundation over its first three years. This follows other funding initiatives, including £10 million over three years from Hefce to support good management practice.

Sir David Watson, vice-chancellor of Brighton University, chair of UUK's longer-term strategy group and a member of the foundation's interim board, said: "The foundation will need to address two problems. It needs to support people who have the potential to be vice-chancellors, to create the right sort of cadre coming through, and it needs to support people once they are vice-chancellors in a fast-moving, challenging environment."

Professor Green added: "The foundation will need to address important issues of diversity. It is hard for female professors to succeed and there are huge challenges in how to manage that."

Deian Hopkin, vice-chancellor of South Bank University, argues that opportunities for management experience vary between old and new universities. "In new universities academics can make a career by shifting into the directorate and then moving between universities. In old universities promotion is more tied to research output than management experience."

Dr Ward is often consulted by headhunters seeking new presidents. "As well as evidence of scholarship and management experience, they want vision - an ability to steer an institution through change. It is difficult to train someone to do that."

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