It is nearly ten years since I took on the role of Vice-Chancellor, following a career in university administration. Given that this was an atypical transition in UK higher education, it briefly made it to the pages of the Times Higher.
I said at the time that, “There are plenty of talented senior administrators in higher education who might wish to consider taking on the role of the head of institution” and that, “The first thing that needs to happen…is that they need to put themselves forward.” My first comment remains true today, but it is less clear – simply because no-one can really know – whether my second point has been taken up in significant numbers.
During this period, while there have been some outstanding examples of institutional leaders emerging from senior roles in the civil service or national higher education funding bodies, those rising through the ranks of university administration are still rare. So, to help move things along I thought I would share a few insights into what being a VC is like and some of the things I have learned along the way.
Prior to this role my university career involved stints at Queen Mary, University of London, King’s College London and one of the constituent institutes of the British Postgraduate Medical Federation. I moved out of London to become the head of administration at Harper Adams. I was very much a generalist, gaining experience through these posts in most aspects of university operations.
By working across a range of functions, and in different institutions, I had experience and a set of skills to match those of senior academic colleagues looking to lead an institution, even if I had not been directly involved in teaching or, until my doctorate, research.
Vitally, I had worked closely with academic staff, including as an ‘embedded administrator’, had developed an empathy with the challenges of their role and, through the example of senior academic managers with whom I worked, understood their deeply-held view that they had a key role to play in decision-making within their institution.
I was an internal candidate for the post of head of institution. I had already spent ten years there, having developed a liking for smaller institutions whilst working at the Institute of Psychiatry and having enjoyed my role in an agricultural institution that was quite different from larger universities. But, having been selected, it dawned on me during my early days in job that this would be very different.
I had to rebuild a senior team, establish a new strategy for the institution, deal with day-to-day issues and work out new relationships with a wide range of staff and external stakeholders. I spent a lot of time talking to staff to understand what they wanted for their institution. We work with the agri-food system, which is huge, but, like other sectors, there are key contacts that need to know about your organisation and key events where you need to be present. Our staff and Governors were hugely supportive, but some of our students and alumni thought I would change the place beyond recognition and it would no longer be ‘their’ institution.
We had, in my view, underplayed our research activities so, whilst assembling my senior team, one of the first things I did was to write a new research strategy. The gesture was welcomed by our academic staff. I made sure that I didn’t reorganise the institution until a few changes were necessary a couple of years in. After all, I had been part of the existing, settled, structure and could hardly alter it without causing massive disruption and losing the focus of staff on our new plans.
I appointed some amazing colleagues to help lead the institution, including one who, importantly, enabled me to move on from my previous role. I also ensured that the heads of our academic departments were firmly part of our decision-making processes. I started to invite key visitors to our institution to brief them on our work, a programme that continues to this day, because of the rapid turnover of individuals in Government and industry bodies. I also made sure that we all talked to students about what they liked about their university, what they wanted to change and the values they wished to preserve.
Not everything has gone to plan. A few years ago some new approaches to marketing did not go down well with our student body, and we reached a compromise only after an interesting ‘town hall’ debate, emphasising the need to keep student views on wider interests than the ‘student experience’ very much at the heart of our decision-making. We suffered a major set-back with a failed renewable energy system from which we have recovered – but it has taken several years, a lot of additional work and was only possible because we had paid particular attention to our insurance arrangements! Whilst not at the top of everyone’s list of university functions, it showed just how important it was to ensure that the ‘hidden’ elements of university administration work effectively. And, like everyone else, we have been through several ‘once in 25 year’ changes to the sector in the last few years that have tested the perseverance and patience of our staff who simply want to focus on providing the best outcomes for our students and producing outstanding research.
Becoming a VC was not in my original career plan. Nevertheless, it is hugely enjoyable to help shape the future of an institution, even if it is often challenging. It is demanding on time and attention, you need supportive and understanding people around you, at work and at home, and you need to appreciate the limits of your abilities and when to call on others for help. It is also a good idea not to let the position go to your head. You have a certain amount of power and authority, but you will not be able to exercise either if you are unable to take people with you. After all, they have to live with the difficult decisions you sometimes have to make, or the latest external demands upon their time, and you need to be mindful of how this can impact on their working lives.
Ten years ago, I did my bit to encourage other senior administrators to have a go at becoming a VC. That challenge remains, and it is one that governing bodies should do more to support. At a time of considerable change in the sector, we need to consider all of the talents available to us, including in the appointment of our institutional leaders.
Should you decide to put your name forward I wish you the very best!