New network for advisers offering words to the wise

November 12, 2009

University Alliance forms group for policy experts assisting vice-chancellors. Hannah Fearn reports

They are often accused of playing politics, but now vice-chancellors are behaving more like MPs than ever, employing policy experts to advise them on their every move.

In a departure from the traditional model of senior management in higher education, university heads are increasingly turning to policy advisers to assist in the day-to-day running of their institutions.

So many vice-chancellors have appointed such advisers that the University Alliance, a group of pre- and post-1992 universities, is setting up a policy advisers group, providing a network for the growing numbers employed in the role.

The development follows the appointment, reported in Times Higher Education in June, of John Armstrong, an expert on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, as adviser to Glyn Davis, vice-chancellor of the University of Melbourne.

In the UK, such appointments have typically come from outside the university sector.

Richard Brabner, policy adviser to Tim Wilson, vice-chancellor of the University of Hertfordshire, cut his teeth as a researcher for the Conservative whip Rob Wilson, the former Shadow Higher Education Minister and MP for Reading East.

Victoria Nichol, policy adviser to Andrew Wathey, vice-chancellor of Northumbria University, has worked in policy roles across the private and public sectors, including stints at the North East Chamber of Commerce, the Fire Service and Northern Rock.

However, her new role is not strictly defined: she told Times Higher Education that her job was to "provide high-level support for the vice-chancellor in any aspect of his role".

Her day-to-day work can range from speech writing to briefing senior managers, preparing submissions to the Higher Education Funding Council for England, and building relationships with local businesses.

Ms Nichol also sits on the vice-chancellor's executive and senior management groups. "Anything that the vice-chancellor is involved with I can be deployed to do," she said.

Caroline Chipperfield, policy adviser to Wendy Purcell, vice-chancellor of the University of Plymouth, said that one of the attractions of the role was its variety.

"I get to know so much about what is going on at the university and I help people make more informed and relevant decisions," she said.

Libby Aston, director of the University Alliance, described the growing prevalence of policy advisers in higher education as a "really interesting progression".

She said advisers could be an important source of expertise for universities if they were used correctly as part of their central management structures.

"I want to make sure that they're really involved in everything the Alliance is doing," she said.

hannah.fearn@tsleducation.com.

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