Study discovers correlation between university leadership and research rankings. Melanie Newman reports. Research-led universities should be run by scholars with strong personal research records of their own, new research argues.
Amid recent government pressure to increase the influence of business leaders in the running of UK universities, Warwick University research fellow Amanda Goodall said this week that her research over several years shows that "top" universities need "top" researchers.
"The evidence suggests that research universities need more than managers to lead them - specifically, that universities are organisations that require leaders to have technical expertise from within the academy," Dr Goodall said.
"The appropriate level of scholarship for a leader depends on the ambitions of a university. If you want to be world class, you need a world-class scholar at the helm."
Her argument was described as "entirely plausible" this week by Lord Robert May, former chief scientific advisor to the Government and former president of the Royal Society.
Lord May has criticised the previous Government under Tony Blair for its inclination to "invite people from the world of business to advise on the management of universities, or to head them".
"Given that UK universities still stand significantly higher on international league tables than does most of the UK business sector, this seems odd," he said.
Dr Goodall, a research fellow in Warwick's Business School, has been examining this issue since her PhD on the subject.
She carried out a statistical study that showed clear correlations between the personal research records of vice-chancellors and the position of their universities in the world rankings.
She showed that institutions higher up the Shanghai Jiao Tong University Ranking of World Universities were more likely to have presidents, vice- chancellors and rectors whose own personal research was highly cited.
Dr Goodall, who will publish her findings in a forthcoming book, also showed that business schools with higher positions in the Financial Times Global MBA rankings were more likely to have deans who were highly cited themselves.
A second, longitudinal study found that universities perform better in the research assessment exercise if they have a vice-chancellor with an excellent personal research history.
She examined whether the performance of 55 UK research-intensive universities in the RAE in 1992, 1996 and 2001 could be related to their vice-chancellors' citation count. She included three control variables in the study: university income, age of leaders and their academic discipline.
Dr Goodall found that those universities initially led by more highly cited scholars went on to perform better in the RAE.
She discovered that universities that improved the most in the RAE between 1992 and 2001 were led by vice-chancellors with higher lifetime citations.
"Universities heading the top ten 'mover institutions' have three times the lifetime citations of those who lead universities that performed less well," she said.
Seeking an explanation for this trend, Dr Goodall interviewed the leaders of top UK and US business schools.
"Three general themes emerged," she said. "The first was about credibility. The participants stated that to lead a university successfully it is important to gain respect from the academics; that an accomplished scholar appears more credible."
Interviewees also emphasised the need for leaders to set academic standards. "If you intend to enforce high standards it is necessary, or at least easier, if you have first met them yourself," Dr Goodall explained.
Finally, interviewees suggested that to lead a university it is necessary to understand its culture. They argued this was much harder for non- academics and those who had given up research many years before.
A spokesman for Universities UK said: "Universities are highly complex businesses with an average annual turnover of more than £100 million and are now operating in an increasingly competitive global market.
"Historically, having an academic background has always been important. The reality is that nowadays vice-chancellors are required to have a whole range of skills in order to be effective leaders in what is a highly successful sector."