The Tony Rich Lecture

The Impact of Universities on their Regions

I was fortunate to attend this event last week.


Richard Muir of IPPR was first to speak and drew heavily on the recent IPPR report (with a rather dodgy title): “Beyond bricks and mortar boards”. Focusing largely on the local economic impact of universities he suggested that the centralisation of economic development policy and the shutdown of the RDAs would have a real impact on regional growth. He also noted:

  • The multiplier of HE spend locally is singificant – £1m university output generates £1.38m in the wider economy
  • There is no direct relationship between economic strength and graduate retention in a region
  • Universities have a key role in facilitating the ‘innovation ecosystem’
  • The number of university start ups does appear dispiritingly small.

Muir concluded by stressing that the IPPR had lots of suggestions for ways in which universities can contribute to local economic development.

David Allen supported much of what Richard Muir had said and quoted a recent comment from Alan Langlands on the contribution of universities to growth and their place in communities. Allen noted that a recent research study had confirmed that international students at Exeter University support over 3,000 jobs in the South West. Moreover the economic impact of the university overall was more than 40 times that of the anticipated benefit of the new John Lewis store in Exeter. Unfortuantely, all the headlines go to the shop.

John Hogan described how his University was ‘hand in glove’ with the city of Newcastle. As an example he cited the huge contribution the University had made to the redevelopment of what is now a hugely popular museum in Newcastle. According to Hogan cities want everything that universities provide. Except possibly the students. In describing the links between a university and city Hogan also referred to Temple Chevallier, the improbably named first Registrar of the University of Durham. He was an extraordinary man as the Wikipedia entry shows:

Educated at Pembroke College, Cambridge, he was ordained a priest in 1818. He became a Fellow of Pembroke College a year later. He was a Fellow and Tutor of Catharine Hall (St Catharine’s College, Cambridge) in 1820 and Hulsean lecturer in Divinity from 1826 to 1827.[1]

His lectures were published as Of the proofs of the divine power and wisdom derived from the study of astronomy in 1835.

That same year, Chevallier was invited to become Professor of Astronomy at the newly-founded University of Durham. A chair of Mathematics and Astronomy existed at the University of Durham between 1841–1871; Chevallier was the one to hold this post. He also served as Reader in Hebrew 1835-1871, Registrar 1835-1865, and from 1834-1835 also assisted with lectures in Divinity.

He was instrumental in establishing the Durham University Observatory (in 1839), serving as its Director for thirty years, and from which he made important observations of Jupiter’s moons and regular meteorological observations. From 1835 until his death, he also served as perpetual Parish Priest at Esh, just outside Durham, where he founded the village school and restored the church.

He also has a crater on the moon named after him. A great set of contributions.

Tony Rich is in this league. But without the beard, obviously. The speakers were followed by some warm tributes, led by Chris Cobb, to Tony’s huge contributions to higher education and to his work for AUA  and AHUA.

Tributes too to Jonathan Nicholls who ran the London Marathon to raise money in Tony’s name for cancer research at the University of Bristol. All in all a terrific event and a great deal of warmth, affection and respect for Tony’s work in the sector.

(Footnote: there were five of us tweeting at the event (you know who you are) and, bizarrely, we were all clustered together. This newly observed phenomenon has been named after Chris Hallas and #hallaslaw will be tested further at future events.)

Administrators cannot offer ‘enlightened management’

Some views on administrators and academics as university leaders

Geoffrey Williams has recently argued that administrators cannot deliver enlightened management in universities. According to Williams only academics can do so:

Administration, like death and taxes, has always been here. Universities need enlightened management; the reality is that only faculty can provide this. Universities also require and employ professional managers. The situation is similar to that in hospitals, another world that requires great dedication from its staff. As everyone knows, if you leave a hospital solely in the hands of professional administrators, the patient is forgotten. Likewise, if you leave a university solely in the hands of a professional manager, there is a risk that both students and research will no longer be to the fore.

David Allen offers a rather different perspective:

Only about one in three employees of universities are academics, but given the academic purpose of universities they tend to have the biggest input in shaping the job and person description, at least in general terms, for VC and other leadership appointments. I take it as a given that senior managers in universities, even if they are not academics, must be able to empathise with academic values and to create strong, positive relations with academic colleagues. Universities are not and should not be command and control organisations. Managers need to proceed by persuasion and the force of the evidenced better argument. Creativity, tension, individuality and resistance to change are often embedded in the academic DNA. Academics have many and varied strategies to bypass managerial processes and edicts which they perceive to inhibit their activities and it is clearly more difficult for a manager who lacks academic credibility to achieve acceptance. A VC/DVC/PVC with an academic pedigree starts higher up the grid and has more of a reservoir of goodwill when difficult choices have to be made. This needs to be balanced with the changing requirements for Vice-Chancellors to be credible with business, not least in relation to fundraising. Academic credibility needs perhaps to be balanced more with other requirements for senior management success rather than as a sine qua non and a barrier to entry to the competition for otherwise well qualified candidates. This would increase the talent pool available for consideration from both within and outwith the sector.

Allen argues sensibly for an open minded approach to recruiting university leaders rather than Williams’ more exclusive approach. All of this echoes an earlier post on the issue of whether academics do indeed make the best university leaders and in particular why it is unhelpful to focus solely on this issue of who is better equipped to lead:

…if a university simply disregards the importance of a first class administration to support first class teaching and world-leading research then it will end up with disorganised, chaotic and expensive processes which hinder rather than help – it is this scenario which has the most negative impact on the productivity of researchers. It’s like building an excellent football team but paying no attention to the pitch, stadium or finances. You might perform well for a time but not sustainably. And sooner or later those star players will get fed up with washing their own kit, selling programmes and clearing up the stands after the game.

So, whilst I might remain mildly annoyed at the suggestion that someone like me could only ever offer benighted misdirection to a university, what really irks about all of this is the idea of mutual exclusivity: whatever the background of the leader, s/he will not be acting alone and will have a team of colleagues working with her/him to deliver success. Universities may well often best be led by leading academics but no one individual, whatever their background, is going to be able to do everything on their own. Universities are just too big, complex and diverse.