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

Sport
Premier League Live
footballLIVE Follow all the Premier League action as it happens
News
The slice of Prince Charles and Princess Diana's wedding cake and the original box from 29 July 1981
newsPiece of Charles and Diana's wedding cake sold at auction in US
Life and Style
3D printed bump keys can access almost any lock
gadgets + echSoftware needs photo of lock and not much more
News
James Argent from Towie is missing, police say
peopleTV star had been reported missing
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
News
i100(and it's got nothing to do with the Great British Bake Off)
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind the scenes to watch the latest series
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
News
i100
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
football
News
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

Year 3 Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: Year 3 Teacher Required We are curr...

Year 5 Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: Year 5 Primary Teaching positionRands...

Nursery Room Leader

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: JOB DESCRIPTION - NURSERY ROOM LEADER...

Nursery Room Leader

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: JOB DESCRIPTION - NURSERY ROOM LEADER...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone