Will the face at the top ever really change?

July 28, 2006

Think of the profile of your average vice-chancellor and the words 'Oxbridge', 'scientist' and 'male' may spring to mind but, finds Anna Fazackerley, you'd be only half right

The UK vice-chancellors' club might still be largely full of men - but you don't have to have an Oxbridge tie to join, according to research.

Glynis Breakwell, vice-chancellor of Bath University who took her first degree at Leicester University, has compiled a database of the characteristics of university chiefs past and present for the Leadership Foundation.

The Times Higher 's exclusive preview of the results suggest that some of the old stereotypes are sticking fast. But others are a little wide of the mark.

Contrary to popular assumption, only one quarter of vice-chancellors who were in post between 1997 and 2006 started out as undergraduates at Oxford or Cambridge.

But Professor Breakwell, who did the research with her colleague Michelle Tytherleigh, admitted: "We haven't got that egalitarian."

In this period, 16 per cent of vice-chancellors took their first degree at one of the London University colleges and 42 per cent studied at other traditional universities.

Some 7 per cent of this cohort started academic life at a post-92 institution.

But curious employees wanting to know how well their vice-chancellor did at university will be frustrated - the database does not include degree classifications.

However, Professor Breakwell pointed out that only two institution heads did not have a postgraduate qualification. And 64 per cent of VCs had doctorates, suggesting that theyJscooped at least a 2.1..

The research also debunks the myth that to get to the top in an institution you have to go to work in a lab coat.

According to the database, in the past nine years four out of ten vice-chancellors were social scientists, making it by far the most popular discipline among heads. Fewer than two in ten were scientists, 15 per cent were from the arts and humanities, and engineers lagged behind at 13 per cent.

Professor Breakwell said: "We compared the profile since 1997 with the profile before 1997, and there has been a significant increase in social science as a background."

But other assumptions ring true. Between 1997 and 2006, only 20 women held vice-chancellor posts - a significant step up from the past but women are still firmly in the minority.

Most vice-chancellors were married or living with a partner, although women at the top were less likely to be juggling a long-term relationship with their job. While 96 per cent of men were married or living with a partner, 69 per cent of women were.

While 79 per cent of the male heads of institutions had children, 56 per cent of the women had a family.

Young rising stars hoping for a stab at the top job may find the statistics depressing. While modern universities used to be more likely to hire younger candidates, since 1997 they have fallen in with the trend and have recruited the more traditional grey-haired vice-chancellor.

The mean age at recruitment for a vice-chancellor in the past nine years has been 54. The youngest vice-chancellor over this period was 43 and the oldest took up the post aged 66.

Professor Breakwell said: "The move away from younger heads of institution in the post-92 universities has to do with the changing expectations of universities."

Sir David Watson, professor of higher education management at the Institute of Education and former vice-chancellor of Brighton University, said: "I find this change fascinating. I wonder if one of the things encouraging this is that governing bodies are beginning to develop a standardised view of what a vice-chancellor should be and are less likely to take risks."

He added that the emergence of headhunters as a powerful force in the sector might have fixed this "standard image" even further.

Although most academics acknowledge that universities have to become more like businesses to succeed, relatively few vice-chancellors come from an industry background.

Between 1997 and 2006, most institution heads - 87 per cent - came from a higher or further education background. Of those who came from outside, 8 per cent came from other public sector environments and 5 per cent were poached from the private sector.

Professor Breakwell said she would be watching to see if this trend shifted.

She added one final reassurance for would-be university bosses: "We have categorically established that there is no relationship between getting a vice-chancellor's job and your star sign. I'm sure people will be relieved to hear that."



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