Anna Fazackerley: University VCs should behave more like CEOs

The idea that universities should think more like businesses is one that still prompts a great deal of indignant snorting in academic circles. Yet, as the market gathers pace, it is the new breed of presidential vice chancellor, who behaves like the CEO of a large corporation, who can be most confident of his institution staying afloat.

Those who prefer their vice chancellors to be modest, sandal-wearing, non-thrusting types, the ones whose names no one outside the institution, and perhaps also no one inside it, remembers, should glance towards the US to see the future.

Stanford University has just announced a massive new financial support programme for students from poor and middle-income families. Parents with incomes of less than $100,000 will no longer pay tuition fees, and families bringing in less than $60,000 will have tuition fees and most of their living expenses paid. At a time of rapidly soaring fees across the Atlantic, this is big-headline, high-impact stuff. And Stanford is able to do this because its fundraising is streets ahead of many UK counterparts, and its endowment fund is absolutely huge (a whopping $17bn).

The common cry in this country is that we don't have a culture of giving like that in the US. And that we don't have the same tempting tax incentives for donors. And of course it isn't fair to compare most UK universities with the privately owned Ivy League big boys like Stanford.

Nonetheless, British universities need to be a lot less British about their fundraising. The first step on the path to riches – or even sustainability – must be a VC who sees raising the profile of his institution and raising cash as two of his (sadly, it is still almost always a he) most important roles.

With this in mind, a number of UK institutions have quietly adopted the US model of having a president and a provost – although most avoid the titles.

For example, when professor Michael Arthur took over as VC at Leeds University, he toured leading public universities in the US to learn about their management structures. Now he has a deputy who focuses on the day-to-day internal strategy decisions so that Arthur can have more influence outside the university.

I called the VC of another top research university, who also sees himself as a president, to ask him how it worked in practice. He wasn't there: he was off on a breakneck world tour wooing wealthy alumni and building up international partnerships. Aha.

Yet, this is not about being hands-off. A common misconception is that because in the US a provost is the chief academic officer, the president will not be involved in academic affairs. This isn't so. The president may not know the ins and outs of departmental warfare, but he or she is heavily immersed in the big strategic decisions and in key academic issues.

Professor Alan Gilbert, who came to the UK from Australia to head up Manchester University, is quite upfront about the fact that he is the university's president (upfront is very much his style). Instead of a deputy, he has four vice presidents, each with responsibility for a different strategic area and with considerable power internally. It remains to be seen whether Gilbert's ambitious schemes, such as his mission to recruit big name Nobel laureates, will pay off. But Manchester wants to be one of the leading universities in the world, and Gilbert is right in thinking that it won't get there without the sort of aggression we tend to associate with the business world.

Spend some time in Westminster, or look at the boards of some our top policy bodies, and you will see that certain vice chancellors are focusing not only on fundraising or strategic partnerships, but also on trying to influence public policy in this country. Snide observers might dismiss this as vanity: using the job to stalk the corridors of power in the hope of a knighthood later. This may be partly true, but universities shape our regions, our economy, our culture and our country as a whole. Shouldn't the people at the helm have some political clout?

We have yet to see whether ministers will ever let a university go to the wall. Perhaps it will depend upon whose constituency they are in. But as institutions battle to find and assert their place in the market, there is no doubt that they will all have some tough and unpopular decisions to make. Lily-livered vice chancellors afraid to put their heads above the parapet or outside the door will put their institutions at risk.

It is time for the new breed of vice chancellor, with an eye for the big picture, a flair for public relations and serious balls. And let's hope some of them will be women.

The writer is the director of the education think tank Agora

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