Universities should apply their widening participation policies to the recruitment of vice-chancellors and consider administrative staff without academic backgrounds for the job, the registrar of the University of Exeter has said.
In a paper to be presented at a symposium on higher education leadership this week, David Allen asked why senior "civilian" university staff were barred from positions for which they are well qualified and suggested that some vice-chancellors do not understand key elements of business management.
He compared two employees: both in their early thirties, both holders of PhDs, one an executive officer to the vice-chancellor and the other a lecturer in physics.
"One is operating at the top of the office, providing briefings for ministerial visits, supporting the senior team and advising on policy. The other is establishing a research profile, teaching and carrying out routine administrative tasks. Which one is more likely to become a vice-chancellor?" Mr Allen asked. "Which is undertaking a more suitable preparation for senior management?"
Talented executive officers without an academic career should have a "route to the top", he concluded.
Although vice-chancellors with industry backgrounds - including Imperial College London's Sir Richard Sykes and Cardiff University's David Grant - have been recruited from outside the sector, no university registrar has made it to the top.
Mr Allen asked whether the academic pool of potential candidates was large enough to serve the sector.
Of the 132 members of Universities UK, on average 22 are seeking a new leader in any one year from a pool of about 350 deputy vice-chancellors and pro vice-chancellors, he estimated. This means that at any one time, these staff have a 20 to 25 per cent chance of succeeding.
"The question is whether (this pool) is wide and deep enough to sustain high-quality vice-chancellor appointments in a world where universities are increasingly operating as businesses."
As universities become more complex, vice-chancellors will need greater expertise in financial management and business planning, Mr Allen said. "For how long will it be an acceptable risk for governing bodies effectively to have the CEO unable to engage at a professional level in relation to major areas of business and policy such as joint ventures, asset management and major project management?" he asked.
David Fletcher, secretary of the Committee of University Chairmen, said: "Governing bodies are highly committed to equality and diversity and are keen to consider as wide a pool of candidates as possible. In my experience, the difficulty is that few such candidates from outside the academic field come forward or are identified."