Head for business, heart for academe

August 25, 2006

What makes a good vice-chancellor? The Times Higher asked those in the job to identify the essential qualities.

* The job today requires a balancing act between what is academically desirable and what is academically possible within the resource envelope available.

When the task was simply to carve up the generous spoils, management skills were not really necessary: decisions could easily be reached over coffee and chocolate digestive biscuits.

Nowadays, someone has to lead the articulation of a clear vision to inform spending priorities, toil night and day to achieve maximum staff buy-in to that vision and then get on with the even harder task of inculcating the teamwork that will be necessary to make the vision a reality. The job also requires a Herculean capacity for handlingJstress. For example, any vice-chancellor in a modern university this summer will be anxious about the consequences of the introduction of top-up fees and, should this result in fewer students at their institutions, how to best underpin any jobs threatened.

We have only to contrast the deep understanding of education that the leadership of the old Further Education Funding Council had with the now terminal decline of the Learning and Skills Council to see what happens when people without a background in education are given high-level management responsibilities in education.

Michael Thorne University of East London

* Why are we anxious about universities being led by academics? In most sectors, chief executives have substantial point-of-service experience; why should it be any different in academe?

The airline industry appoints from within, as does the retail sector. A vice-chancellorship is all about leadership, and having experience of working as an academic is, I would humbly suggest, a great advantage.

One of the problems in the past for National Health Service chief executives was that the majority of them did not have substantial service delivery experience - that is, only a few have been frontline clinicians as nurses, doctors or allied health professionals. Never mind how able they are, this placed them at a disadvantage in their leadership of frontline service providers.

It is healthy for the sector that most university leaders have their roots in academe. Furthermore, most will argue that higher education is one of the UK's success stories - hardly overpowering evidence of a leadership deficit.

Eric Thomas

Bristol University

* Organisations need to be run by people who have skills in leadership, decision-making, managing people, financial and business understanding, communication skills and common sense. Unfortunately, many of these essential skills are lacking in the people put in charge of running large institutions.


* Universities are strange places to manage; academic staff have loyalties to both their university and their discipline, the latter often being the stronger. Overly dirigiste management that fails to recognise this is unlikely to be successful in the longer term, though it may have some benefits in the shorter term. What is needed in universities is not management but leadership, and this is the critical factor.

Senior academic staff, particularly those who have had a leadership role in the development of their own subjects, are often better able to provide such leadership than professional managers, though the best marriage is probably between academic staff providing leadership and administrative staff providing facilitation and support.

Vice-chancellors coming into universities from business have a mixed record: where they can provide leadership, particularly if they can earn the respect of academics, they can be very effective. But too many of them have found the strains of attempting to manage large and amorphous institutions without the benefit of any academic respect to be simply too great a challenge.


* Being the chief executive of any organisation requires that person to understand the business of the organisation but also to be a good leader and a good manager.

In terms of understanding the business of a university, there are clearly advantages to be gained from having been part of that business - an academic. That doesn't mean you have to have been a brilliant academic but it is valuable to have been active in research, have been involved in teaching and learning and in other activities such as knowledge transfer.

This adds greatly to your credibility and also helps in making sensible and grounded decisions about what is possible and desirable.

At the same time, it is possible to have derived these insights from experiences other than that of an academic. The obvious example of that is people who have come up through the administrative side of universities. I personally have no doubt, for example, that there is a number of registrars in the sector who would make excellent vice-chancellors. In my experience, they have an understanding of the business of universities absolutely equal to that of academics. The sector has not benefited from the experience and potential of this group. A glass ceiling seems to operate, hindering a very able group of people who have all the qualities to be excellent vice-chancellors.

There are also examples of people who have come in from outside the university sector who have made excellent vice-chancellors. There is a small number of these, though, and I think the transition from other sectors brings with it inherent problems. These problems are no different from those in the commercial world where most business leaders tend to work within one business sector - some move across sectors, but this doesn't always work there either.


* The modern vice-chancellor is the academic leader and the chief executive of a major corporation. He or she may have responsibility for more than £1 billion of public money, for the financial solvency of the institution, for many thousands of staff, have formidable personal responsibility for the implications of health and safety, discrimination legislation, corporate manslaughter and so on.

The main task is having a leadership role in producing and delivering a comprehensive strategic plan, working within a funding regime that is at best annual for some funding but more likely to have a lead time of weeks, set against expenditure commitments that are long term. No wonder headhunters tell you how difficult it is to obtain ideal candidates for these posts.

To be a successful modern vice-chancellor, you need serious academic credibility; and to drive research and enterprise excellence, you need to understand and appreciate academics and their needs and drivers. You also need to understand basic business operation, business leadership and strategy. Both the academic and business roles come to a focus in the vice-chancellor position - that is where the buck stops and both aspects of the job are equally important. It is not an either/or.


* Although now a professor of higher education policy, I am one of the few vice-chancellors appointed without an academic background, although I had occupied a number of national higher education roles.

It is obvious that vice-chancellors need good general leadership qualities.

These may have been acquired in a variety of settings but you have to have credibility with academics, if not credibility as an academic. This means a real and successful effort to engage with and understand academic values and practices. This can be acquired outside the academy but it isn't easy, and so far only a handful of people have managed it.

Roger Brown Southampton Solent University

* More and more universities are recognising that they have to be run as a business - a high-volume, low-margin business. In making that simple statement, I have already indulged in the language of business, and increasingly we vice-chancellors do this - we worry about "attracting customers" through our "product portfolio", for example.

Our attention needs to be on the income and expenditureJaccount, the balance sheet and the cashflow statement; we worry about staff costs (as a proportion of income), non-staff costs, central overheads and surplus.JWe need that surplus to give us the headroom to invest in staff, equipment and building resources to maintain and improve our positions in an extremely competitive market.JThat requires us to grow our income over and above what is needed to fuel salary increases, and to do that we have to turn to sources beyond the funding councils; indeed, in some universities funding from the Higher Education Funding Council for England now represents only a third of income.

There are other ways in which our businesses are unconventional. Our customers - our students - require an extensive and diverse range of support activities, both academic and personal; our academic staff are recruited for their individuality and their passion for their subjects and their vocation.

Although academics may have contracts that specify hours of work and days of holiday, the reality is that the passionate, engaging, dedicated lecturers, tutors and researchers transcend such employment conditions - which is why academic salary levels are so often misunderstood.

For these reasons, the person at the helm has to have a deep understanding of the business - the nature of the university, its staff, its students, the balance between teaching and research, and so on. The successful vice-chancellor needs to be something of a businessman or businesswoman alongside this. Success in a vice-chancellor's post is more likely to come from a successful academic - not a brilliant academic necessarily, if the implication of that is research excellence.

Kel Fidler Northumbria University

* There is an expectation that the fundamental purposes of a university are academic and for a vice-chancellor to be credible and to have legitimacy among academic colleagues one needs to have gone through the ranks and have an understanding of the issues and pressures that staff face. I am not sure that this is always a sound criterion, though I can think of a couple of cases where that lack of experience or empathy has been problematic.

My own view is that vice-chancellors do benefit from opportunities for formal training and mentoring by more experienced colleagues and that the ability to lead a university effectively is neither innate nor God-given. I have probably learnt more about running this university profitably through my youthful experience of my parents' hotel business than I have learnt from the seminars and workshops offered by the major accounting or management firms or, for that matter, the Leadership Foundation - excellent though their contributions may be.

An axiom that I would apply would be "know what you don't know". If you are not an expert in estates, human resources or finance, then make sure that, as part the senior management team, you have an able set of colleagues who can complement the skills of the vice-chancellor. For special projects, get good consultancy advice, I have found it to be worth every penny.


* Universities should be run solely by academics. The best universities in the world are those of the American Ivy League, and they are run by academics. The connection is not hard to make.

Terence Kealey Buckingham University

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