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.