Struggle to fill v-c job vacancies

July 21, 2006

Changes in academe have led to a number of chiefs bowing out and a dearth of suitable candidates, reports Anna Fazackerley

Institutions are facing an uphill battle to find high-calibre vice-chancellors as university chiefs bow out ahead of a new commercial era for higher education, The Times Higher can reveal.

There has been a spate of announcements about university heads stepping down in recent months. And headhunters and senior university figures predict that at least another five departures will be announced this autumn. It is an unusually high turnover at the most senior levels of academe. Recruitment firms now fear that there may not be enough good candidates available to fill the vacancies.

Some heads are going earlier than expected to make way for someone fresh to get to grips with a changing landscape riddled with new uncertainties, from top-up fees and student "customers" to the need to account for the real costs of research projects and the search for new income streams.

A higher education specialist in one executive recruitment firm told The Times Higher : "Headhunters are being put under real pressure because of the number of jobs at the moment. Chairs of council are starting to talk to vice-chancellors about whether it might be a good idea to go early, before fees really kick in, rather than handing over the challenge halfway through."

Staff at Sheffield Hallam University are still recovering from the shock announcement last week that Diana Green, their experienced and forthright vice-chancellor, will be leaving the institution after nine years in the job.

Professor Green said: "A new five-year plan will be starting and the world is beginning to change. Rather than me leading the university through a new cycle it seems sensible to bring someone else in to take a fresh look and to take the university forward.

"Top-up fees have reinforced a general shift towards being more businesslike. Wherever you look, be it research, recruiting students, or continuous professional development, universities are having to think hard about what they offer."

She added: "I think it will be increasingly difficult for people who have spent their entire career in higher education to successfully manage something where all your income streams have some degree of risk attached to them."

Professor Green, who plans to buy an aeroplane and "do some living", said she would not accept another vice-chancellor job but was open to other offers.

Michael Wright, who is retiring as vice-chancellor of Aston University, said that he had been approached for about four vice-chancellor jobs since he confirmed his departure. He said: "I'm coming up to 60 and could only do five years, so that shows how tough the market is."

Last week, Newcastle University announced that it had appointed a new vice-chancellor - Chris Brink, head of Stellenbosch University in South Africa.

Professor Wright predicted that there would be an increasing need to lure talent from abroad, but warned that foreigners would face a struggle to get to grips with "a very different dynamic" in the UK.

He said: "You should be slightly daunted by it. I've seen a lot of vice-chancellors appointed over the past few years who didn't really understand what they were taking on. You are a chief executive, a politician and an ambassador, as well as the most senior academic in the university."

Ewart Wooldridge, chief executive of the Higher Education Leadership Foundation, said that his organisation had trebled the number of places on its top management training course to meet demand.

He said: "As a vice-chancellor you have to engage both internally and externally. The other key thing is the ability to manage change. This isn't just about project management, it means keeping people on side and dealing with people who are disappointed."

He added: "It is a very, very demanding job that requires total commitment.

Some people who value their work-life balance might not want to do that."

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