Can troubleshooter vice-chancellors turn universities around?

With UK sector in increasing dire financial straits, universities are turning to experienced hands to steady the ship, but is short-termism really what institutions need?

November 29, 2023
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Aside from the salary, there are seemingly few other incentives to become a vice-chancellor in the UK in the current climate.

Tasked with balancing an ever-growing list of priorities in the midst of a funding freeze, while weathering increasingly regular attacks from politicians and the media, most would balk at the idea of taking on the high-profile role, let alone doing it more than once.

Some leaders in the sector are, however, on to their third, fourth or even sixth vice-chancellorship; part of a small but growing band of “troubleshooters”, drafted in for a year or two to get institutions back on to a stable footing.

Universities are turning to experienced heads when change is needed and their services are only likely to become more in demand as the difficult funding environment takes its toll on more institutions.

But can one person really turn things around or is the rise of the interim vice-chancellor indicative of short-term thinking within universities, akin to a relegation-threatened football club hoping to be saved by the fabled “new manager bounce”?

Graham Upton, who led Oxford Brookes University for a decade, went on to do five interim jobs: at the University of Cumbria, Wrexham Glyndwr University, Birmingham City University, Bangor University and SOAS University of London, before finally retiring in 2021.

What is it like to always be in the thick of it? “In some ways it is hard,” Professor Upton admitted. “The morale is low, the institution is in a hole and people aren’t feeling great about themselves or their futures.

“On the other hand, it is also extraordinarily rewarding when you turn that around and you leave an institution with a future.

“Sometimes, when you come in, it seems the only options are closure or merger, and you end up giving that institution an independent existence that allows it to go back to its aims and ambitions. There is a real buzz in helping with this turnaround and working with people to create that sustainable future.”

John Raftery, another former Oxford Brookes vice-chancellor who has also led London Metropolitan University and has just finished an interim post at the University of Wolverhampton, agreed that such positions could be “super-intense” but rewarding.

When he went in at Wolverhampton, it was looking to shed up to 250 jobs and mothball 138 courses as part of efforts to close a £20 million deficit. After interventions from Professor Raftery and another interim leader, Ian Campbell, he leaves having brought forward the first surplus budget the institution has had for seven years.

“Somebody else said it is a bit like being an emergency room surgeon: you are brought in to do these intense interventions,” he said.

“In my case they are usually pretty consistent: ensuring the stability of the organisation and continuity of services before setting up the build-back.”

Does it take a particular sort of person to take on such a role? David Maguire, the former University of Greenwich vice-chancellor currently tasked with turning around the University of East Anglia, having done similar jobs at the universities of Dundee and Sussex, said he had never planned to have a second career as a troubleshooter but now believed he was somewhat suited to the posts.

“I really enjoy understanding how institutions work and what makes them tick. I enjoy trawling through all the documentation to understand how it is where it is, what its critical success factors are and its weaknesses. I’ve likened it to cramming for finals. You’ve got, at best, a couple of weeks to learn all you can about an institution,” he said.

Whereas interim roles have become a way of life for some, others have found themselves in such positions because of a very specific set of circumstances.

Karen Stanton, who started as interim vice-chancellor of Bishop Grosseteste University in Lincoln this summer, had already planned to return to her native Lincolnshire to look after her elderly mother, having retired as vice-chancellor of Solent University, when she was offered the new role. And her local knowledge has been crucial in getting up to speed fast.

“I’m committed to the region and widening access here. It is great to be part of a team who know where I come from, who have the same background – it makes a big difference. It is quite easy to integrate myself into that community because I feel like I came from it originally,” said Professor Stanton, who has also been vice-chancellor at York St John University.

She said Bishop Grosseteste faced a number of challenges when she arrived that were prevalent across the whole sector but were exacerbated by it being a smaller institution.

“It was at the point where it needed a new strategic direction. My predecessor had been here for 10 years, built a lot, achieved a lot. It was now important to think about how to take the university on, and I have experience of doing that in two other institutions. I think the council felt I could help with that in the short term and lay the ground for a new vice-chancellor to come in and settle it down and take it forward.”

The uncertainties surrounding universities currently might be fuelling the desire for leaders to have track records of delivering organisational change, Professor Stanton said.

“It is a moment in time for institutions in the sector to understand how they are going to go forward, what direction they will take and how they are going to compete in what is a very competitive marketplace,” she said.

The interim role represents a balance between laying the groundwork for this new direction and showing it can work in practice, but not pre-empting all the decisions a permanent vice-chancellor might wish to make.

Professor Stanton said this inevitably led to a focus on what could be achieved in weeks and months as opposed to years.

Professor Raftery said that whereas a long-term leader might take 10 months to develop and consult upon a new strategic plan, at Wolverhampton this process took 60 days.

Short-term solutions can shore up an institution and prepare it for longer-term change, the theory goes, but Michael Shattock, a visiting professor at the UCL Institute of Education and an expert in higher education management, said he was “suspicious” of the idea that vice-chancellors should be seen as “turnaround agents”. Universities should instead be focusing on strengthening their entire governance and executive teams, he said.

“Somebody at the top might be able to make a few quick crucial decisions but they will only be that; [they will] not necessarily have any long-term effect,” Professor Shattock said.

“My approach will always be to get someone from outside to do a proper report on what looks to be going wrong and then think carefully as to what steps ought to be taken. I wouldn’t rush into seeing the vice-chancellor as the problem that needs to be replaced.

“I don’t think that produces solutions. These problems are almost always relatively deep-seated and need long deliberation and reform, not the quick and easy moving of the deckchairs around the Titanic.”

But Professor Raftery said that, having done it before, interim leaders could mould their existing experience to get to grips with what was going wrong quickly and then set the wheels in motion to fix it.

Professor Maguire agreed. “Universities are more similar than they are dissimilar,” he said. “There’s a lot of common themes and all operate in essentially the same funding, regulatory and quality environment. So much is the same; you can walk between institutions and see a high degree of familiarity.

“Coming into an interim situation, there are usually reasons that precipitated a change and the need for interim leadership, and it is important to understand all that. But there are common themes. It is usually about finance, people and major projects. Usually, one or more of those will need some close attention.”

Interim leaders can also shed some of the demands of the vice-chancellor role – especially the outward-facing ambassadorial elements – to focus on internal problem-solving, said Professor Raftery.

But they should not assume they can bypass communicating with staff when delivering their interventions, he warned, because this breakdown of dialogue was usually one of the major things that had gone wrong in the first place.

“Many times, you’ll find internal communication has split or become one-way, but people will go to great lengths to work hard for leaders they respect,” he said.

“Most people are decent people who come to work, do their jobs and go home to their families. When you are in a turnaround situation, you need people to step up and do a bit more than that, go above and beyond.

“In order to elicit this a leader has to be authentic, honest [and] candid because ultimately people care about being cared about.”

Professor Maguire said winning the confidence of staff and stakeholders was “always a critical early task of any incoming leader” and this was exacerbated when in an interim situation.

“You need to show you understand what is going on and what can be done about it – and, at the same time, get people to recognise you are not a messiah who is all-seeing and all-knowing,” he said.

“You are a person bringing some experience and energy and knowledge to help them in the early days, but there is no way you can know everything.”

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