By any standards the level of churn at the top of universities has been remarkable in the past year. Institution heads may leave their post for any number of legitimate reasons: a new role, retirement, or a change in personal circumstances. But sufficient numbers of vice chancellors have departed unexpectedly that it has started to feel like a systemic issue, rather than a collection of isolated crises.
Vice chancellors are tackling adverse political headwinds, with student recruitment challenges, complexities in the delivery of international campuses and partnerships, the ever-present league tables and a seemingly endless stream of crises in their student bodies. Government policy, if not actively unfriendly to universities, is more critical than it has been in the past, and if there ever was a cosy consensus between university leaders and government departments, it no longer exists.
Beyond the pressures of the role, it is also painfully clear that some university leaders have not lived up to the personal standards expected of them. When tales circulate of bullying, the appointment of favourites to senior positions, outright corruption and suppression of adverse events in order to present a rosy picture to governors, it forces onlookers to wonder whether there is something about the role that fosters the exercise of the holder’s worst impulses.
Being a vice chancellor is arguably much harder than it used to be, with much less scope for error and much greater risk that all your good work is undone by the failure of a risky venture or an unforeseen public relations disaster. The potential stress is enormous, the work difficult and complex and the non-financial rewards uncertain. As society puts a greater emphasis on wellbeing, family life and intrinsic rather than extrinsic reward, the list of decent, talented people willing to risk it all for the sake of the title of vice chancellor will surely shrink.
Power dynamics are shifting
University staff, long critical of what is characterised as the rise of managerialism in higher education, have discovered the power of social media to confront senior leaders directly. Last year’s strikes over the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) brought the changing power dynamics into sharp relief.
Some university leaders, having previously professed themselves prepared to face strikes, when it came down the reality of the Twitter war, scrambled to put themselves on the right side of public opinion. And in the wake of the industrial action, vice chancellors are being forced to confront the need to change the conversation inside universities to address the staff issues that were raised during the strike.
In the public narrative, vice chancellors have become emblematic of the widespread practice of heads of organisations gaining disproportionate pecuniary rewards compared to the rest of their staff. Moreover, the expectation that vice chancellors should be publicly accountable, media-savvy and skilled in communication, adds to the challenge of the role.
One vice chancellor referred to the “chilling effect” that the senior remuneration narrative has had on his own willingness to speak out on political and social issues. But this will surely be a self-fulfilling prophecy. And a grand retreat from the public eye at the moment of maximum peril for the sector may prove to be a colossal mistake.
The culture wars are one-sided
The sector is facing an uncoordinated but hugely powerful attempt at an ideological re-drawing of the UK political and social consciousness that has already led us out of Europe and now requires the dismantling of liberal and democratic institutions that stand in its way.
Countless think tanks, politicians, journalists and public figures line up to criticise students as “snowflakes”, universities as “left-wing madrassas” and paint the higher education experience as overpriced, representing poor value for money and return on investment for individual students and the taxpayers at large.
If, as Nick Hillman’s recent Hepi paper on USS put it recently, vice chancellors fought an “analogue war in a digital era” when it came to the industrial action, the same could also be said about their approach to wider culture wars being fought in and around universities. If vice chancellors offer comment at all, it is through the medium of a set-piece speech to university staff, or via a representative body, or very occasionally a carefully curated interview in the media.
We don’t think vice chancellors alone can win this fight, but at Wonkhe we see the attacks on universities and students come almost every day and most of the time, it feels like the sector’s leadership doesn’t even appreciate that there is a war going on, let alone lead the fightback we need. The failures of the few have damaged the credibility of the many. The leadership vacuum is painfully obvious and the damage being done by it may not be understood for many years.
We can change the story
The challenges of the role, the scepticism of university staff and the public criticism have isolated vice chancellors and exposed their weaknesses. We need to move on from the notion of the heroic individual leader on whose shoulders all responsibility and accountability rest and start building better models of collaborative leaders, who draw their strength and credibility from the talent and insight of their staff and students.
It is time to revisit the foundations of university leadership and reimagine the notion of the academy – a community of thinkers – for the modern era, beyond the autocratic, top-heavy command-and-control model.
Academics bemoan the loss of power and autonomy that seems inherent to a managerialist approach, but academic leadership in the sense of confining leadership to the collective facilitation of research and teaching is clearly not suitable for the modern university. Nor should we be seduced by radical ideas of the democratic anarchic collective; universities still need to be compliant with regulation, financially sustainable and capable of making difficult decisions about the allocation of scarce resources. All these pressures require meaningful professional leadership to be in place.
Yet it’s not hard to imagine more dispersal of power across institutions, fostering leadership at every level. This would bring higher education leadership not only into principled alignment with the original makeup of the university, but probably ensure that it more closely reflects the reality of getting things done in a large and complex institution (and even the smaller universities are large and complex when compared to, say, a small or medium sized enterprise).
Decisions would be taken by the people closest to the issue, and based on a combination of the best evidence available and on consultation that engages with the different critical lenses of expertise and experience that may be brought to bear. Course teams, research teams and professional teams would develop and test theories of change for how best to achieve their goals and those of their students, and disseminate the ones that worked best.
A continual open, and critical, conversation about the external policy environment would be maintained, and everyone invited to reflect on what achievement of the higher education mission can and should be within its constraints. That conversation would take place in public, and it would include anyone within and outside the university. It would not be controlled or curated by corporate communications teams, who instead would be responsible for finding and amplifying the most forceful voices and the best ideas from across the university.
The best leaders are skilled at building and working with diverse teams, and aware of their own limitations. Boards of governors should consider the balance and diversity of skills and experiences a senior level, and scrutinise the effectiveness of senior teams, in addition to the performance of each individual in their domain. Success could be recognised and celebrated at all levels, and failure tackled, rather than the vice chancellor automatically taking all the credit or all of the responsibility. And the whole university, up to board level, needs to be prepared to act swiftly and take seriously issues of personal impropriety or toxic behaviours.
Within universities, at every level, thought should be given to the qualities of effective leaders, and efforts made to recognise those qualities whenever they are manifested in the delivery of concrete results, rather than mistaking a high capacity for self-promotion, personal charisma, or taking credit for others’ work, for leadership potential.
Support your talent pipelines so that emerging leaders can aspire to develop into senior leadership within their own institution, building loyalty and bringing established relationships and insider knowledge to senior roles.
Much of this is fairly close to what actually happens inside universities. Yet the narrative of higher education leadership continues to focus on the investment of power and authority in a handful of people.
In the current era, leadership can emerge from anywhere and emerging leaders have the tools they need to get their voice heard. Wonkhe’s contributors come from all parts of higher education, and the only thing they have in common is a willingness to take a view. The next generation of higher education leaders is already working inside universities, and they are already leading.
Vice chancellors can be generals in the battles to come, but they need allies inside and outside the university community: people from different backgrounds and of different political persuasions. And they may find that in sharing power and authority, they win back some of their own.