Digging in? The changing tenure of UK vice-chancellors

Think tank: HEPI

Author(s): Nick Hillman

May 26, 2022

This report from UK think tank HEPI looks at the length of stay for UK university Vice-Chancellors.

The Higher Education Policy Institute, with support from executive search firm GatenbySanderson, has published a new paper on the changing tenure of UK university vice-chancellors over the past half a century. Digging in? The changing tenure of UK vice-chancellors (HEPI Policy Note 34) shows that, from the late 1970s to 2011, the average tenure of in-post vice-chancellors declined significantly – from 6.4 years to 4.1 years, a drop of 36 per cent. However, since ‘marketisation’ received rocket boosters in the Coalition years, with – for example – a big increase in tuition fees and the liberalisation of student places in England, the average tenure of UK vice-chancellors has increased. For serving vice-chancellors, it is now approaching 5 years (and is up around 15% from its lowest point around a decade beforehand). This is the highest it has been since the turn of the millennium. Back in 2010, just one vice-chancellor (2 per cent of our sample) had a current tenure of 10 or more years; in 2021, eight did (16 per cent).

By the time vice-chancellors stand down, they have on average spent eight years in the job, way above other professions to which they are sometimes compared. For example, the average tenure of a Premier League football manager is two years and one month and the average tenure of a senior NHS executive is around three years. The tenure of vice-chancellors is also very much longer than senior Government Ministers, who tend to hold their posts for around two years. Only one top-level government minister with responsibility for education has come anywhere near the average eight-year tenure of the average retiring vice-chancellor, and that was over a century ago: Sir John Eldon Gorst, was Vice-President of the Committee of the Council on Education for just over seven years between 1895 and 1902. England has had twelve different Secretaries of State for Education (though the post has sometimes had different names) since New Labour came to office in 1997. Scotland has had 10 incumbents in the comparable post since devolution in 1999 and Wales has had eight, while Northern Ireland has had five (as well as periods of direct rule during which five London-based Ministers have been in charge). The paper points out that no university could have coped smoothly with so many leadership changes in such a small space of time. Indeed, any institution with so many changes at the top would surely be widely regarded as failing.