When crisis management is not enough

Captains of industry are not expected to run £300m operations without any training. So why are British university vice-chancellors?
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The Independent Online

Take a clever academic. Give him (it is usually a he) time and money for research. Watch his reputation grow. See how he takes charge of his department, gaining a taste for academic politics and networking. Look how he jumps into the university hierarchy and before long is working all the hours God gave him as a pro-vice-chancellor, doing the dirty jobs for the vice-chancellor, the university top dog.

Take a clever academic. Give him (it is usually a he) time and money for research. Watch his reputation grow. See how he takes charge of his department, gaining a taste for academic politics and networking. Look how he jumps into the university hierarchy and before long is working all the hours God gave him as a pro-vice-chancellor, doing the dirty jobs for the vice-chancellor, the university top dog.

Our successful don may be trying to continue with his own research as well, but you can be sure he has precious little time for his wife and family or for any training in how to be a university manager.

Universities in the UK are run by relatively untrained people who have landed the job through being good academics. They may be running outfits with budgets of £200m-£300m a year, but they are doing so without the preparation given to captains of industry. Some have ended up at the top almost by chance. There is very little training for vice-chancellors, except for a one-year-old programme at the Universities and Colleges Staff Development Agency, and there is no salary structure at all.

It's not surprising then that people - among them Treasury mandarins - believe that universities are poorly managed. Professor Maurice Kogan, of Brunel University, says: "Most have tried hard. For the most part, however, I think that the quality of academic leadership is poor. The senior managers find it difficult to combine the collegial aspect - understanding what the academics are doing and gaining their assent to change - with actually running the institution."

Which is why Professors Gareth Williams and Michael Shattock of London's Institute of Education are creating a new Master's degree to help higher education do the job better (see box). "There are clearly some disaster stories around," says Professor Williams. "It is generally thought that some of the universities at the top of the league table are among the least well-managed institutions. Their success comes from individual members of staff and research groups."

The disasters include Thames Valley University, the former polytechnic which ran into trouble in 1997 after an inquiry by the university watchdog, the Quality Assurance Agency. Vice-chancellor Mike Fitzgerald was forced to resign and troubleshooter Sir William Taylor was parachuted in to sort the place out. Student numbers plummeted and the university is only now beginning to pull itself up under the stewardship of Professor Ken Barker who built up De Montfort University in Leicester.

Stories abound about poor personnel management in all universities - staff not knowing what's going on, or the vice-chancellor being ignorant of what's happening in university departments. There is talk of faculties out of control, of a lack of staff development and of academics finding crafty ways not to co-operate with edicts from the centre.

Not surprisingly, the trade unions are particularly critical. "I think an awful lot of universities are very badly run," says Tom Wilson, head of the universities department of the lecturers' union, NATFHE (National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education). "Vice-chancellors are the chief executives, but we have found many don't know how many staff they employ, how much they're paid or what their payroll is. As a result, they're not doing a very good job. They resort to a series of fixes and fudges to balance the books."

If you can't gather reliable information about 60 per cent of your spending - the staff costs - you're in trouble, according to David Triesman, general secretary of the Association of University Teachers.

In general, very few university leaders are prepared for the strategic job of running a large enterprise and knitting together the different bits, he adds. "That's a pity because we have some very good strategic management training in the United Kingdom now. In private industry, senior managers are trained to look at the options they face, assign an order of priorities and plan their financial management accordingly. That doesn't happen in higher education."

Other professions run proper training programmes. Civil servants have the Civil Service Staff College, and private- sector managers take MBAs to hone their management skills. But universities have not, until recently, thought it necessary to do the same.

That is odd given that their managers are working under considerable stress. Research by Professor Rosemary Deem at Lancaster University shows that they are clocking up 60- to 70-hour weeks - more than that claimed by those in private industry working long hours.

It is in fact widely accepted that running a university is an almost impossible task. In the old days, a vice-chancellor's job was like that of a conductor controlling bright if awkward chaps in a stable environment.

Today, it has almost become crisis management - how to keep the institution afloat in a world of change, when your budget is being cut but you can't control the input, the number of students, or your funding, and where you're having to account constantly to government for the quality of teaching and research.

The financial squeeze on universities, beginning in the early 1980s, brought with it a command hierarchy superimposed on the old collegiate structures. That hasn't worked particularly well, according to Professor Alan Smithers, of Liverpool University, because academics have sometimes felt put upon and have reacted by not co-operating.

"Under the old system, universities couldn't respond rapidly enough to the changing environment," he says. "You need something that can do that but it mustn't be Stalinist. You need to involve people collectively. If you keep sending out orders, they will find imaginative ways of ignoring you."

In 1981, a report by top businessman Sir Alex Jarratt recommended vice-chancellors be seen as the chief executives of their institutions. Dons interpreted this as meaning that the authority of the vice-chancellor should be rooted in being a good manager rather than a towering intellect. But, according to a new book, University Leadership: The Role of the Chief Executive, the ability of a vice-chancellor to prevail by sheer managerial will is still constrained. The top dog can't lord it over his or her academic colleagues - at least not for long and not very effectively - because it doesn't work.

Professor Heather Eggins, director of the Society for Research into Higher Education (SRHE) believes, however, that a university can be turned round by a good chief executive. Next week, the society is holding a seminar, sponsored by The Independent, in order to discuss the issue.

One place being transformed is Queen's Belfast, where Professor George Bain, formerly director of the London Business School, has got rid of professors weak in research. "What we're trying to do is to change an organisation that, for a whole set of reasons particular to Northern Ireland, had trouble changing rapidly," he says. The university has recruited 100 new people: it entered 74 per cent of academics in the 1996 research-assessment exercise; it will be entering more than 90 per cent next year.

Another man with vision and a strong desire to improve his university's reputation is Professor Bob Burgess of Leicester University. Formerly of Warwick, he has the experience of having helped to manage a stunningly successful institution which is now near the top of the research league table and has an enviable record for raising money from outside sources.

The new man at Thames Valley, Professor Barker, says one of the key qualities for a vice-chancellor is managing a budget creatively. "It's not just about housekeeping but a more comprehensive approach to financial management, including dealing with finance houses and taking financial risks."

Previously, Thames Valley saw its mission as teaching rather than research, and taking students who would not otherwise have got degrees. Unfortunately, that did not help its income stream. Now it is trying to build up research. Professor Barker has divided the university into three faculties and is hoping to blaze a trail in new vocational directions. He is trusting that growth will follow and the money will flow.

The first SRHE Millennium seminar, sponsored by 'The Independent', on institutional leadership is on 3 October at Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education. The speaker is Professor Keith Robbins, Vice-chancellor of the University of Wales, Lampeter. Further details:020-7637 2766

'University Leadership: The Role of the Chief Executive', by Catherine Bargh, Jean Bocock, David Smith and Peter Scott, OUP, £19.99

l.hodges@independent.co.uk

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