Is poor governance behind the high turnover of UK vice-chancellors?

The recent exodus of vice-chancellors from UK universities raises questions over what is going on in the sector. Is inadequate governance the root cause?

February 21, 2019
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There has always been a steady turnover of vice-chancellors. There are more than 100 across UK higher education, so an average tenure of five years would mean a couple a month moving on.

But only an ostrich could fail to notice something unusual about recent boardroom activity, and in our news pages this week we consider some of the causes of the turmoil at the top.

The rash of departures has inevitably raised questions about governance, and whether it is working for a sector facing new and evolving challenges. So I asked some established university leaders for their reading of the situation (to spare blushes, and allow candour, all are quoted anonymously, and all are commenting generally rather than about specific cases).

For one long-serving vice-chancellor, there are legitimate questions about whether governance structures, and capabilities, have kept pace with the changing demands.

“The list of responsibilities placed on governing bodies has been growing exponentially,” the vice-chancellor said. “The demands do not always align with governors’ understanding or skill sets, academic governance being the most significant, and nor is there a buffer body [as there was with the Higher Education Funding Council for England] providing advice and support.

“Rather, the tone from the Office for Students is hostile, combative and, to a degree, frightening to many of those who sit on boards, unpaid, and who are there through a sense of duty.”

This, in turn, places pressures on executive teams, the vice-chancellor argued, which are under far greater scrutiny than in the past – scrutiny that may be appropriate but that nevertheless “presents challenges when governors may be fearful, demanding and lacking the knowledge and understanding to discharge their role”.

A second vice-chancellor argued that the Committee of University Chairs guidance was adequate, and that problems were “more often about behaviours than structures”.

“Are governing bodies making full use of audit committees, for example, including to address issues of conflict of interest? If you’re in a regulated industry this would be controlled much more tightly.”

For all the talk about universities shifting to a tougher, more corporate approach to governance in recent years, the vice-chancellor questioned whether this had in fact gone far enough.

“There’s an argument that universities should be less corporate, but the truth is that we need very strong independent non-execs, particularly from regulated industries.

“People who have operated in those industries, such as financial services, utilities and charities, understand issues such as conflict of interest in a way that perhaps internal stakeholders do not.

“I do wonder if we are still living with a relic from a previous age, when there was a bit of fuzziness about how an academic might combine their public and private work.”

A third vice-chancellor echoed the importance of specific expertise on governing boards: “We need very strong financial and audit competence,” the vice-chancellor said. “Excellent, evidence-based risk assessment is essential.”

She added that the relationship between vice-chancellor and chair worked best when based on “transparency, critical appraisal and support – defensiveness is dangerous”.

Also crucial were senior employees such as the chief financial officer and chief operating officer, who “must have the authority, courage and confidence to challenge the vice-chancellor”.

A fourth vice-chancellor argued that the turnover could be a sign of governors doing their jobs well, albeit with a greater level of intervention than universities are used to.

If so, he suggested that this could be being fuelled by the increasingly competitive market in student recruitment – a key reason for nervousness about institutional performance.

“You could see it almost as an increasing amount of effective governance, and argue that there has been too little of this in the past,” he said.

“There’s no doubt that competition is getting tougher and there are patterns now emerging in things like student numbers, with winners and losers.

“Chairs of governors are responsible for taking action when things are going south, and one of the things they can do is remove the vice-chancellor – not the only thing, and not the first thing, but as things get harder over the next two or three years there will be more of that.

“The reality is that, in contrast to comparable sectors such as local government, in higher education we have outsourced so much of our talent management to third parties such as headhunters, that we have very few development programmes for rising academic leaders.

“And if I am honest, I think that a lot of the people who get to be pro vice-chancellors and then vice-chancellors, in terms of organisational understanding and readiness, they’re not there.

“If there’s a systemic problem, I’d say it’s with how the people who get to be our vice-chancellors are developed.”

john.gill@timeshighereducation.com

 

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: A question of supervision

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