Professor Sue Rigby, vice-chancellor of Bath Spa University reviews the her first six months in the leadership role.
I am six months into my vice-chancellor role at Bath Spa University. No leader has much of a honeymoon period these days - certainly not at a UK university given the current tough political, policy and public environment we are operating in.
But I have five broad observations since I had the privilege of starting my role in January:
Set The Tone: I didn’t fully appreciate the potential impact a vice-chancellor could have until now, in setting the tone for the whole institution - building a sense of belonging, ownership and solidarity within the university. Our job is about enabling and helping every individual to do what is right, not getting them to do what you think is right. Top-down, command and control just does not work in universities. It is about putting the right ethos in place. That's why it's crucial for us and our senior staff to be visible, to listen, to engage, to understand and act. People like speaking to senior team and we need to encourage that. They don’t often have grievances when they meet us. They just want to be heard. We cannot tell our people often enough: "we’re lucky enough to have the most effective academics in the world and be privileged to teach some of the most talented students in the country". Once we do that we will be in a better position to address many of the challenges we face.
Win The Right To Be Trusted: We should not confuse negative headlines with a loss of belief higher education is a public and social good. Be in no doubt, the country still believes we need a thriving sector, with an outstanding teaching experience, driving skills, innovation and jobs and genuine social and societal value. But that is not the same as being trusted to do this, or that every decision we make is right. University leaders have to win the right to be trusted. It is right that nothing we do is off limits from criticism, debate and discussion - our research and teaching; our social and economic value; our business practices and corporate behaviour; and our leadership and governance.
We must be humble enough to embrace the higher expectations there are of us and brave enough to change tack if we need to. Action not words is key.
Value for Money: We shouldn't be afraid of the value for money debate. We need to deliver to students, staff and all our academic and commercial partners what we promise. The introduction of fees from 1997 onwards appears to have threatened universities’ sense of value, where we feel forced to choose between enabling our students to 'become', or to get jobs.
We do our students a disservice if we reduce university education to transition into a first professional role. Yet too often academics still get sidetracked into divisive, conceptual, sterile debates about what value for money is. That's why I prefer to talk about learning excellence as being the true measure of value - teaching students to think, reason, compare, discriminate and analyse, as John Henry Newman wrote in ‘The Idea of a University’ in 1852.
True value focuses on the more complex, unique transition of attributes, skills and knowledge to each student. And this puts the onus first on academics creating a learning space and second, on individual students to get the most out of it. It is not reducible to simple metrics but it is a richer, more sophisticated and intelligent way of judging what we do.
Address the Pay Issue: we must grasp the nettle of the debate over senior remuneration. It has become a lightning rod for criticism of university leadership being apparently remote, out-of-touch and elitist. Part of addressing it is purely practical - governing boards being crystal clear and transparent about the basis and process for decisions. Part of it is recognising it is not isolated from other major issues impacting our staff - pay restraint, pension reform and contracts. Universities need to be more imaginative about setting (and being seen to set) fair, due reward for all staff. We need a more open, constructive dialogue about what it takes to run a university, how we generate new revenue to reinvest back into the institution, to underpin frontline research, teaching, learning and student support services.
Go Beyond Box Ticking: Our job must not be about box-ticking compliance culture or gaming league tables - it should be about seeking and setting higher standards in everything we do.
We need to go beyond what we are asked to do in the TEF, REF and forthcoming KEF. Higher performance means tackling the entrenched, ingrained issues in the sector - not paying lip service to them. We see this, particularly, in the stark inequalities in outcomes and opportunities. Yes, there is undoubtedly unconscious bias which we need to address, particularly on gender and BAME academic pay and promotion. This is not about dumbing down, as some assert. But we must recognise academic excellence is not just based on TEF or REF-ability - it includes broader academic citizenship, teaching, pedagogy and pastoral duties. Only then will we get a lot more diverse and plausible candidates at every level.
After the honeymoon comes the first year of marriage, always an exciting time, and the same is true for the sector: we’re are facing a changed, and changing, environment – but handling new challenges is what leading any organisation is about. It’s a great incentive to be creative, and that is always stimulating.