V-cs plan body to lift standards

August 28, 1998

David Jobbins and Philip Fine report on the Association of Commonwealth Universities meeting in Ottawa.

Commonwealth vice-chancellors have approved in principle a plan for a Commonwealth International University to improve the quality of member universities.

Michael Gibbons, secretary-general of the Association of Commonwealth Universities, said: "There is no intellectual foundation for university management. We will start the university on the back of research. We have to create an institution that does for higher education what the Harvard Business School has done for management.

"To professionalise management in the higher education sector in the way HBS has professionalised industrial and commercial management, we need to support a research tradition."

The initiative is a key element of a seven-point strategy for the future development of the ACU supported by vice-chancellors. The plan also includes strengthening the Commonwealth Higher Education Management Service, the consultancy operated by the ACU; and establishing an Internet-based index to best practice in universities across a range of topics of concern to vice-chancellors throughout the Commonwealth.

The plan came hours after Sir Graham Day - chancellor of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and a close adviser to former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher - called for the creation of a cadre of professional university managers.

Sir Graham, a former chairman of Cadbury Schweppes and a key figure in the privatisation of several UK state industries, also suggested that ten years was long enough for a university vice-chancellor to remain in the job.

Arguing that universities should view their management as a "vocation, separate and apart from the academic hierarchy", Sir Graham likened universities to the British economy of the early 1980s, when unions had stepped in to fill a vacuum left by the failure of management to fulfil its responsibilities.

"Many universities have permitted faculty associations, unionised or not, to move into areas that have absolutely nothing to do with academic considerationsI It is extraordinarily difficult to reverse this process, but absolutely essential."

Asked about the optimum term for vice-chancellors' appointments, he said:

"In business, commerce and industry, I believe ten years is approaching the limit for a chief executive in a specific job."

After eight years or so there was a tendency for problems to recycle and for senior managers to reach for the same solutions they used the first time round.

Michael Clarke, pro-vice-chancellor of the University of Birmingham, called for more attention to be paid to training managers. He said: "We are woefully inadequate in what we do to prepare people for taking on management responsibilities."

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