Trouble at the top: Malcolm Gillies’ departure from City University has revealed an intense relation

Author: By Lucy Hodges

He quit after a long-standing disagreement with the governing body ? the
university council chaired at present by multi-millionaire Apurv Bagri ?
about how to run the institution. An eminent music scholar, Gillies, 54, an
Australian, had served less than two years as vice-chancellor. He will stay
on as professor of music until next January and has been unavailable for
comment since his departure.

His is not an isolated case. In recent months there has been a spate of such
resignations, causing people to ask: who is running our universities?

At the University of East London (UEL), the former vice-chancellor, Professor
Martin Everett, was first suspended by the governors, then went on
indefinite leave and finally, earlier this year, “resigned”.

Like Gillies, Everett had done nothing wrong. In a statement the governors
said they made no criticism of his integrity or conduct, but that there had
been an “irretrievable” mutual breakdown in trust and confidence.

In January this year it was announced that the vice-chancellor of Leeds
Metropolitan University, Simon Lee, was resigning following allegations
about his treatment of staff, which he denied. Other vice-chancellors have
also announced that they are to leave early, before the end of their terms.

One is Professor Stephen Hill, principal of Royal Holloway, University of
London, for the past seven years, who is taking a sabbatical until his
retirement in 2011; the other is Professor Bill Macmillan, vice-chancellor
of the University of East Anglia, who had been in post for two-and-a-half
years when it was announced, out of the blue, earlier this year that he was
taking early retirement.

These departures are leading to worries that governing boards ? increasingly
made up of businessmen and women rather than academics ? are running the
show, and that it might not always be in the best interests of the
universities and the wider public. The University and College Union is
concerned, particularly about the secrecy surrounding the recent departures,
and experts are worried about the possible constitutional implications.

“What’s happening is quite dangerous,” says Roger Brown, former
vice-chancellor of Southampton Solent University and professor of higher
education policy at Liverpool Hope University. “The vice-chancellors
are the professionals and the governors are the amateurs. You can’t have a
bunch of amateurs running a university.”

It is also a matter of concern for Robin Middlehurst, professor of higher
education at Kingston University, although she emphasises that the direct
cause for each departure may not always have been the same. “Good
governance is about strong relationships and a shared understanding between
people,” she says. “The key is, first, the relationship between
the vice-chancellor and the clerk to the council, as well as the governors.
And it extends to the senior management team collectively.

“In the end, it’s about good relationships between the vice-chancellor
and chairman of governors because they have a very particular job to do.”

Ewart Wooldridge, chief executive of the Leadership Foundation for Higher
Education, agrees. “We must be careful not to see a trend here,”
he says. “There are a number of factors that make that relationship
intense, and very likely that there are going to be tensions.”

For more than 20 years ? ever since the Jarratt Report in 1985 ? there has
been a shift in the balance of power between governing boards and
vice-chancellors. Today the governors have unambiguous responsibility for
the health of a university. This strengthening in their power has been
driven through by a little-known body called the Committee of University
Chairs (CUC), which has produced guides, a code of practice and performance
indicators against which governors can judge their institution.

These publications make clear that governors are “unambiguously”
responsible for the employment of staff and for overseeing the institution’s
activities, including its strategy. Crucially, the Higher Education Funding
Council has supported all this, even though technically it has no standing
in such matters.

At the same time there has been a move to make governing bodies smaller, which
inevitably means fewer academics and more outsiders, who may have no
understanding of university traditions. Tellingly, City University has a
small board of only 15 members.

The beefing-up of governing bodies’ powers has put vice-chancellors under
increasing pressure. “The governors will ask: ‘Why is our university in
the bottom half of this newspaper’s league table? Why are you not doing this
and that?'” says one old hand. “This puts the vice-chancellor
under enormous pressure. Their salary, their bonus, is dependent on it.”

This is exacerbated by the tendency of universities to put vice-chancellors on
fixed-term contracts of five years, with the possibility of renewal for
another five. At the same time, there has been talk about professionalising
governors by paying a fee, for example, to the chairman of the board. This
idea is being actively debated within CUC and could reinforce the tensions.

The relationship can go wrong if the governors try to take over the
institution and run it on a day-to-day basis, according to Mike Thorne,
former vice-chancellor at UEL and now boss at Anglia Ruskin University. “They
are then crossing the boundary of the executive functions of the
vice-chancellor.”

But it can also go wrong if the vc says, “Clear off, this is nothing to
do with you. This is my institution,” according to Thorne.

But it is only a handful of universities where the clash between the top dog
and the governors has come into the open. This seems to be happening at
relatively unsuccessful universities, says one expert. City came 44th out of
113 in the Complete University Guide, published in The Independent.

“The governors are looking at all the league tables and beginning to ask
whether there is something wrong with their institution because it comes so
low down in the league tables,” says the expert.

“They’re taking a much more managerial view of the vice-chancellor and a
much more sceptical view of academics. If academics are not on the governing
body ? and they aren’t in the post-92 universities ? it’s pretty easy to see
them as a lot of troublesome employees.”

Not everyone is so gloomy, however. Professor Thorne says: “I think it’s
a good system if it’s working well with checks and balance on both sides.
And it’s healthy to have tension between the vice-chancellor and the chair
of council.”

According to Sir Andrew Cubie, former chairman of CUC, the new emphasis on
where responsibility lies in universities was needed to clarify the role of
the board and the purview of the vice-chancellor. “The issue is not
different to what you would find in a corporation where the relationship
between the two pivotal people ? the chair and the chief executive ? is
absolutely essential to the good running of the institution,” he says.

“But no matter how good the structural position, if the chemistry isn’t
there, if there isn’t respect, that will not be to the good of the
institution.”

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