Vice-Chancellors: masters of doublethink?

Higher education expert, Mike Boxall, examines PA Consulting Group’s latest survey of university leaders

Are university vice-chancellors masters of doublethink – George Orwell’s term for “the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them”? That seems to be the inference from PA’s latest survey of leaders of HE institutions.

The responses showed most vice-chancellors to be deeply pessimistic about the outlook for student recruitment and research funding, and predicting widespread institutional failures and mergers. Yet they were almost universally bullish about the prospects for their own institutions’ ability to secure growth and profits from those same problematic sources.

The paradox perhaps reflects the dual-facing nature of vice-chancellors’ roles. They must simultaneously represent and promote the interests of their institutions in the outside world and also ensure that their university community understands and responds to the conditions for their success in that world.

Until quite recently, this balancing act was not too difficult, as the external and internal worlds of HE worked in close harmony. There was unchallenged agreement that what was good for universities was good for the national HE system. The role of government was to secure sufficient funding for excellent universities, and the role of universities was to spend that funding responsibly. This amicable complicity worked well for many years, building and sustaining one of the best HE systems in the world – leaving aside the fact that the great majority of young people were excluded from it.

Even the great expansions of the university system in the 1960s and again in the 1990s did little to disrupt the cosy relationship between universities and government. The protective net and cost-based funding simply expanded to accommodate the new club members, on condition that they behaved like the established universities – which most were happy to do.

The harmony between universities’ internal and external worlds began to unravel during the Blair/Brown years, when HM Treasury started demanding “something for something” in return for the near-£10 billion a year HE budget. That something took the form of enhanced public benefits from HE, including social access, employability skills and industrial competitiveness. However, since these demands were accompanied by increased, albeit targeted funding and didn’t actually require universities to do anything very different, vice-chancellors and their institutions took the changes in their stride. They continued to regard government as both their primary customer and their protector from the strengthening winds of market change.

The great rift started and has widened over what we might call the ‘Willetts Years’ of coalition government, during which government has effectively dissociated itself from universities’ historical claim that “HE, c’est nous”. This policy reversal has seen funding for HE teaching effectively removed from universities and reassigned to students and has also lowered the regulatory barriers that kept private and alternative providers from accessing that funding. At the same time, the student quota controls that both maintained excess demand for HE and gave institutions assurance over their future income have been relaxed and will be removed altogether in 2015.

We have in effect moved from a closed, stable and largely harmonious HE ecosystem to a new open and disrupted market in which the relationships and interdependencies between the internal and external life of universities are being redrawn in real time. This is putting vice-chancellors under new pressures. Wearing their representational hats, they find themselves fighting rear-guard actions against government policies that actively damage the interests of their institutions, such as visa restrictions on overseas students. Meanwhile, wearing their managerial hats, they must persuade their academic communities to recognise that the market genie will not be put back in the bottle, and that they need to reinvent their business.

It is not surprising therefore that surveys such as PA’s reflect apparently contradictory messages from vice-chancellors. On the one hand, they are telling government ministers, who “seem not to be bothered”, that their policies are jeopardising the HE system as we have known it. At the same time, they are telling their institutional stakeholders that there is a bright future beyond Student Number Controls and Resource Allocation Budget charges, if only they can overcome their deep-seated aversion to change. Suddenly, those much-criticised top salaries are starting to look well-earned.

Mike Boxall is a higher education expert at PA Consulting Group.

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