The international rescue

More and more British universities are looking to talented foreigners or those with experience abroad when they come to appoint a new vice-chancellor. Lucy Hodges wonders why

Why are so many foreigners being appointed to the top jobs in British universities? The man chosen to be Oxford's new vice-chancellor - Dr John Hood - is a New Zealander from Auckland University; the man who will head the merged Manchester and Umist universities - Professor Alan Gilbert - is an Australian hot from the leading job at Melbourne University; and the woman brought in to oversee Cambridge - Professor Alison Richard - is a Briton who has spent her working life in the USA, at Yale University.

Are university managers from overseas better equipped to run modern universities than our home-grown variety? Some observers think so - or, at least, that these individuals, as well as their counterparts at Lancaster (where a British-born Australian, Dr Paul Wellings, is in harness) and Brunel (another Australian), have the kinds of qualities and experience that have not been nurtured until recently in the UK. "There is a dearth of suitable people in the UK," says Roger Brown, principal of Southampton Institute.

Whether the job of vice-chancellor is viewed as particularly unpleasant in the UK, or that the people putting themselves forward are not as well prepared, is debatable. Andrew Oswald, professor of economics at Warwick University, thinks that foreigners overestimate the attractiveness of the job of vice-chancellor. "They think that British universities are like they were a quarter of a century ago - well-paid sinecures," he explains. "The Brits know that it's a really tough job."

Professor Alan Ryan, Warden of New College, Oxford, makes the same point: "Anyone inside the system knows how ghastly the job is, with all the bureaucracy and government interference, so they wouldn't volunteer to do it," he says. "The hope is that we can get people in from abroad to do something before they realise and run off."

Important agents in the new trend are headhunters. Universities now use headhunters to trawl for candidates when vacancies arise. Mike Shattock, an expert on the higher-education scene, believes that this is leading to more foreigners being appointed. But why are universities turning to headhunters? The answer is that they want to pick from a wider pool. Higher education is now a global marketplace. Modern universities are getting bigger and bigger (the newly merged Manchester University will be the biggest "old" university), and it makes sense to recruit someone who has already run a big university. There are not many of those available in Britain.

Encouraged by the Government, British universities are operating on the world stage when recruiting both students and staff. "We're seeing more British students studying overseas, and more overseas students coming here, so we're looking now at an international rather than a national scene," says Robert Pearce, the new vice-chancellor of Lampeter University in Wales. "And it's undoubtedly the case that universities are having to become more businesslike."

According to Mike Brown, vice-chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University, universities are no different from any big private company. "You get people moving around," he says. "BT is now run by an Australian. They bring in new ideas. It's fine."

Professor Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of Exeter University, rebuts the notion that the talent is lacking in the UK. "It's not about talent," he says. "Ten years ago, if you were looking for a vice-chancellor, you might not have gone abroad. But now the pressures of increasing student numbers, declining funds for teaching, increasing concentration on research, and the emphasis on business activity, form a generic set of problems that nearly all OECD countries face. If you can do it in Australia, you can do it here."

The new trend should not be overestimated. Universities have always recruited from overseas. Warwick has an American vice-chancellor, David VandeLinde, who was previously vice-chancellor at Bath. In the Eighties, Warwick was run by another American, Clark Brundin. Until recently, King's College London had an Australian vice-chancellor, Professor Arthur Lucas, who is being succeeded by the American Rick Trainor. And for decades, the New Zealander Professor Sir Graeme Davies had a number of distinguished jobs, running first Liverpool, then Glasgow, and now the University of London.

The men - and occasional women - can be divided into three categories. There are the Brits who return home after spending their working lives abroad, such as Professor Richard, the new vice-chancellor at Cambridge, and Duncan Rice, Aberdeen's principal, both of whom returned from the US; and Dr Wellings, the top dog at Lancaster, who came back from Australia.

There are the foreigners who come to Britain to study, sometimes on scholarships, and stay on, such as Sir George Bain, the retiring vice-chancellor of Queen's Belfast, Sir Graeme Davies and Trainor. These people could be called "honorary Brits".

Then there are those who are new to Britain when they arrive, such as Steven Schwartz at Brunel and VandeLinde. They are being joined by two high-profile newcomers - Professor Gilbert, who is quitting Melbourne, the best university in Australia, for Manchester; and Dr Hood, who is coming to Oxford from Auckland (though he does know Oxford, having been a Rhodes Scholar there).

Some observers think that foreign blood is actively being sought for Oxford and Cambridge, because these are complicated, if not byzantine, institutions where knowing too much is almost a handicap. An outsider, on the other hand, can come in and reform without bothering too much about what went before.

In addition, universities - and Oxford and Cambridge colleges - are changing. A different range of talents is being sought for the top job. Where once a high-ranking academic, a Fellow of the Royal Society, say, would have been just the ticket to chair committees and cheer on the rowers, now the pre-eminent post is thought to need political skills and the ability to project the institution to the outside world. "If you go back in time, the vice-chancellor used to have the role of academic leader," says VandeLinde. "Now, the role has changed to overall university manager. The system just wasn't 'growing' these people to any significant degree."

Today, universities need someone who knows how finances work, according to Lampeter's Pearce. And many want someone who can raise money. Fundraising is an art that has been perfected in the USA. The fact that Aberdeen's Rice cut his teeth at New York University meant that he was able to use his knowledge to raise large sums for Aberdeen's endowment. The university will have cause to be everlastingly grateful to him.

At Lancaster, Dr Wellings' attraction was that he had been deputy chief executive of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation in Australia. "There was a strong view by the appointments committee that they wanted a vice-chancellor who could present the face of the university more publicly than in the past," he explains. "Lancaster is doing some wonderful things, but many people don't know about them."

Some observers comment on how bouncy and self-confident the foreign vice-chancellors are compared with the British variety. Were they able to wow their selection committees as a result? And did they benefit from growing up in more egalitarian surroundings than those of 1950s Britain? Sir George Bain, of Queen's Belfast, certainly believes that it helped to have been educated at non-selective state schools in Canada. "Perhaps those of us coming from the colonies were more classless and had a better social manner," he says.

Professor Graham Upton, vice-chancellor of Oxford Brookes University, who grew up in Australia, thinks that antipodean vice-chancellors might have a tougher streak and perhaps be more ambitious than those from the UK. Whatever the reason, British higher education has become more international recently, and the vice-chancellors are reflecting that trend. A system that a generation ago was relatively complacent and inward-looking has become positively interested in the outside world.

l.hodges@independent.co.uk

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne has been cast as Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
film
Arts and Entertainment
tvSPOILER ALERT: Like a mash-up of 28 Days Later, Braveheart, The Killing and Lord of the Rings, this GoT episode was a belter
Sport
Danny Cipriani of England breaks clear to score his second try
rugby
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Recruitment Genius: Nursery Pre School Practitioner

£6 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Due to continued expansion, they are loo...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development & Relationship Manager

£45000 - £90000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Development & Relati...

Recruitment Genius: Personal Assistant - Startup

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Personal Assistant is require...

Guru Careers: Graduate Software Developer / Junior Developer

£20 - 28k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Graduate Software Develop...

Day In a Page

On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific
In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

Dame Colette Bowe - interview
When do the creative juices dry up?

When do the creative juices dry up?

David Lodge thinks he knows
The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

Fashion's Cher moment

Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

Health fears over school cancer jab

Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

Weather warning

Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

High hopes for LSD

Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

Saving Private Brandt

A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral