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Power List 2018: Whatever happened to the “big beasts”?

Powerlist judge Charles Heymann ponders what has happened to the "big beasts" of the sector - and what this teaches us about the modern nature of trust.
This article is more than 5 years old

Charles Heymann is a consultant in strategic communications and reputation management.

What have the following got in common?

One Chinese Premier. One European Commission President. One Prime Minister. Four Cabinet Ministers. Two Ministers of State. One Opposition Leader. Three Shadow Ministers. One Cabinet Secretary. Two Permanent Secretaries.

They all appeared in the first ever Wonkhe HE Power List in 2015 – along with a sprinkling of bureaucrats and lobbyists from Westminster Village.

It was a top-down take on who calls the shots. That people in Beijing, Brussels and London pull the levers which control hundreds of institutions, tens of thousands of academics and millions of students.

This year’s Power List is markedly different. We have written year-after-year about the fragmenting political and policy landscape, coupled with the changing nature of power – as Robin Middlehurst argues today. Our list reflects it.

We see it very starkly in the demise of the so-called “big beast” vice chancellors. There were 12 vice chancellors in that first Power List, eight from the Russell Group – this year there are only four in total

And if the original Power List panel is honest, it bought into an image of vice chancellors as established, commanding and respected players on the national stage. We don’t want to get personal. But it’s now clear that while individually many are big fish in their own ponds, collectively very few actually stand out.

What’s going on?

It comes down to trust. The financial crash 10 years ago exploded the belief in the morality of capitalism – that the free market rewarded good behaviour and punished bad behaviour. And that the best guarantor of trustworthiness was financial institutions’ ability to make profits to benefit us all.

We know what happened next. And it taught an important three important lessons. We live in an age where reputation cannot necessarily be trusted. Reputation does not mean a bank or a business or a charity or a government or even yes, a university, necessarily acts in the public interest. And reputation does not mean institutions or their leaders are inherently honest, reliable, competent, credible or authentic.

An erosion of trust

Since 1983, Ipsos MORI has tracked trust in individual professions, And despite fluctuations, people have always trusted scientists, nurses, doctors, lawyers and teachers to tell the truth. And the people least trusted remain politicians, journalists and business leaders.

Yet trust is not an exact science. Our trust in institutions, brands and organisations is more rational, evidence-led. Our trust in individuals, however, is more personal, emotional and subjective. So in universities, say, we may trust the integrity of research into cancer or dementia. But it’s equally legitimate for students to be angry about rising rent costs or staff about real terms pay cuts.

We see this in trust today becoming more horizontal. AirBnB, Lyft and Zopa rely on trusting people ‘like us’, not remote leaders or institutions. People trusted Michael Otsuka, Josephine Cumbo, or USS Briefs to tell the truth during the USS dispute– not their own vice chancellors.

So the big beasts need to stop telling themselves that internal and external criticism levelled at them is unfair, unjust and unjustified.

The vast majority have backed ‘shock therapy’ financial reforms since 2010 and bought into the ‘fiscal illusion‘. “Trust us”, they’ve said, “we’re acting in your best interests”. Yet despite the injection of new funding, they now don’t want to own the consequences. A highly volatile undergraduate market. Smaller, specialist institutions financially on the brink. Part-time numbers collapsing and adult education squeezed out.

So the Power List reflects a disconnect between the high ideals university leaders espouse and the mood on the ground. Those on the picket-lines were not the awkward squad. Thousands had never been on strike before. For them #nocapitulation was not about revolution. It was about pride, solidarity and community.

UK higher education – at its very best – is a force for good that needs protecting, defending and cherishing. But university leaders must do more than shout louder at their internal and external critics. They need to win the right to be trusted.

Trust does not magically appear by being beaten into submission by facts, evidence and statistics. And trust is not created by smarter marketing; slicker PR; and sharper messaging. Trust is built on undeniable, distinct, immutable values. It’s built on real action not words, substance not spin, delivery not rhetoric. And it’s built over the long-term – hard-fought for, hard-earned and hard-won every single day.

Standards in university life

Take the furore over vice chancellors’ remuneration. The USS strikes showed, yet again, it was a lightning rod to a host of other long-standing issues – student cost of living; value for money; job insecurity; casual contracts; and gender and race pay inequalities. Senior pay, whether in the private or public sector, always opens up hard questions about corporate governance and behaviours; accountability and responsibility; ethos, culture and values; organisational and management structure; and leadership quality. Yet vice chancellors thought they could sell a cut to pension benefits for the many, while not budging an inch on their own pay and bonuses.

The image of universities can no longer be the story that leaders necessarily want to tell. It is right they are judged against contemporary business ethics, legislation and regulation. Vice chancellors are not isolated from public opinion or changing social attitudes.

  • They talk about loan repayment being fair and progressive as if it is separate to wider intergenerational tensions on housing, debt, jobs and pensions.
  • They talk about due reward and fair pay – while a tiny number of senior executives remain richly rewarded for the success of entire institutions.?
  • They talk of social mobility – but hand on heart, how well is the £1billion-plus annual investment on access and progression really working?
  • They claim students are getting value for money – yet sticking points remain on everything from contact time to the cost of living.
  • They claim universities are inclusive. Yet few are brave enough call out institutionalised racism, as David Lammy or Kehinde Andrews do. And it’s embarrassing so few are prepared to bust open boards and senior roles for women.

The list goes on.

Yet on all these issues, it’s others on our Power List that are leading the way. And all this points to way for a new generation of leaders in higher education – not more of the big beast old school.

Wonkhe set out an potential agenda for change back in March, which we will return to in the months ahead. And it demands leaders who perhaps see themselves more as social activists and their institutions more as social movements. Doing what they say they are are going to do; and not promising what they can’t possibly deliver. Making decisions in the common good – because if they are not, why they doing it? And embracing and owning mistakes; being humble, listening and understanding their own people.

And, that means leaders need to make themselves publicly vulnerable – putting openness, honesty and transparency first when under fire, above the very understandable, default instinct to be defensive, reactive and closed. Building trust is not easy. But relying on established reputations is not enough any more.


Find the 2018 HE Power List in full here.


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