The toughest job in Britain?

September 5, 2003

Why is it so difficult to find a great v-c? Look at the job description, writes Stephen Watson, and it's no mystery.

The issue of how universities should be led and managed as they evolve into multimillion-pound operations competing in a global market has come to a head this summer in the wake of the higher education white paper and the Lambert review.

For some time, universities have looked to outsiders when appointing vice-chancellors - to other universities or to industry. With the emphasis on good leadership qualities, the search is being widened, with many recent appointees coming from posts in the US, Australia and New Zealand.

Gone are the days when eminence in research was the only qualification for the role of vice-chancellor. What a vice-chancellor has to do in a modern institution is manage a complex organisation, often unused to and usually opposed to central leadership. Many academics believe that the notion of management through the general agreement of all the teaching staff - the collegiate ideal - is the best way for universities to be managed. This has, of course, long been challenged from outside the sector.

Self-governing communities of scholars may have worked in the 19th century, when the typical Oxbridge College had no more than 100 students and a dozen dons, but government by hierarchies of committees does not work for multimillion-pound institutions increasingly accountable to many stakeholders.

Most people who work in the sector agree that the collegiate ideal no longer works, but not on what should replace it.

The university depends crucially on what its employees know in order to fulfil its functions. Other knowledge-based enterprises may therefore be possible models for the management of universities. How about management consultancies? Like universities, their employees must generate new ways of thinking, keep up to date with knowledge development and engage with their clients to help them learn.

But in the management consultancy world, bean counting reigns supreme. You are only as good as your last assignment and, if you don't perform, you are pretty quickly "let go".

In contrast, for universities to flourish, the faculty must be allowed some scope to think unfashionable thoughts while holding at least medium-term job security. Running a university like a management consultancy would produce an organisation where staff were focused not on knowledge but on the commercial value of knowledge, or even the commercial value of snake oil made to look like knowledge. What might that do to the spiritual values of our educated elites?

There is probably no satisfactory model for university management in any other knowledge-based enterprise - universities have unique properties.

The modern vice-chancellor has therefore to find a way to deliver stakeholder value while keeping the university financially afloat. All this has to be done without some of the key levers of power available to the manager of an industrial enterprise - notably the ability to dismiss staff who don't appear to be going in the desired direction.

University leaders need, therefore, to be both politician and chief executive. As politicians, they must be able to juggle stakeholder pressures and demands while building winning coalitions for action. As chief executives, they must have the key leadership abilities: vision, communication skills, decisiveness, energy and the ability to inspire.

No wonder the job is a tough one to fill.

Stephen Watson is principal of Henley Management College.

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