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Who Really Runs English Universities?

Shepherd, Sue (2014) Who Really Runs English Universities? In: Global Academic Network Conference, 25 April 2014, Temple University, Tokyo. (Unpublished) (KAR id:40859)

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The days of “donnish dominion”, when academics were firmly in charge of university life, may seem like something of a distant dream to many of today’s academics.

The conversation in the corridors of academe these days is likely to revolve around the ‘managerialism’ that is said to have permeated higher education. Core academic culture and values, it is alleged, are being sacrificed on the altar of corporatisation. Private sector practices, such as target setting and performance management, are being imposed on academics who are increasingly struggling to find time for research and scholarship.

Academic autonomy is perceived to be under threat in the face of the inexorable rise in the power of professional managers, often recruited from the private sector. But is this prevailing narrative about the decline of academic authority fact or fiction?

My doctoral research into the appointment of deputy and pro vice chancellors (PVCs) in pre-1992 English universities has found that the profile of those getting these senior jobs has changed very little over time. This is despite dramatic changes to the scale and complexity of university management and, hence, to the role of the PVC which now tends to be full time and increasingly managerial.

Nevertheless, contrary to earlier predictions, business or professional managers are not taking on these roles. PVCs remain predominantly white, male professors. This virtual monopoly of academics (or, arguably, former academics) in PVC roles has continued despite the recent adoption of an open competition method of PVC appointment in many pre-1992 universities.

Surprisingly perhaps, the opening up of PVC roles to external candidates has not resulted in any diversification in the demographic or professional profile of those getting the jobs. In fact, it appears to have had exactly the opposite effect. A conservative and risk-averse approach to external recruitment has resulted in a focus on prior experience as the main indicator of ‘quality’. This, in turn, has led to a large increase in the appointment of those who already hold (or have held) a PVC post. In addition to – or perhaps as an unintended consequence of - this recirculation of existing PVC post holders, there has been a significant reduction in the proportion of female PVC appointments by means of external advertisement compared to an internal-only recruitment process.

Overall, then, my evidence suggests a high degree of conservatism and continuity in PVC appointments over time. This would appear to reflect both a degree of ‘homosociability’, i.e. the tendency to select “people like us”, and of professional closure whereby academics are effectively excluding other occupational groups from PVC positions.

Thus, far from professional managers taking over university management, academics have retained control and are arguably consolidating their authority.

Item Type: Conference or workshop item (Paper)
Uncontrolled keywords: Higher education management; higher education leadership: recruitment and selection; Pro Vice Chancellors
Subjects: L Education > LB Theory and practice of education > LB2300 Higher Education
Divisions: Divisions > Division for the Study of Law, Society and Social Justice > School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research
Funders: Economic and Social Research Council (
Depositing User: Sue Shepherd
Date Deposited: 01 May 2014 12:51 UTC
Last Modified: 12 Jul 2022 10:40 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)
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