What exactly does a university Vice Chancellor do?

Members of the UCU working in Higher Education are now being balloted on industrial action on casualisation, excessive workloads, the gender pay gap and general rates of pay.

While the sector relies on over 100,000 casualised staff, the gender pay gap is at over 10% and salaries for most HE workers have failed to keep pace with inflation, salaries for senior management and Vice Chancellors continue to rise… Mike Haynes asks the obvious question: what do VCs actually do?

Professor Paul Curran, VC City University London presents Zhores Alferov with an honorary degree. Photo: A. Kachkaev

Vice Chancellors are university bosses.  It is a weird name. But they like you to use it. ‘Yes Vice Chancellor, no Vice Chancellor’.  They also get to dress up in funny clothes. But make no mistake university Vice Chancellors are bosses through and through. And they are very well paid. If you have a local university the chances are that its Vice Chancellor earns more than any local boss in industry. They  probably also earn twice as much as the head of the local council or the chief constable or the head of the local Health Trust.

What exactly does a university Vice Chancellor do?  A simple answer is they do what the government tells them. But this is more interesting that it looks. Some universities have retained a degree of  independence but many – especially the newer ones – jump to the government’s tune.  This happens to the extent it does because these institutions have become less democratic and more managerial. The top bosses are now paid to follow every twist and turn that comes from above rather than reflect the real interest of those who work in these institutions.

But there are other elements too. As Vice Chancellors encourage us to see universities more and more as businesses, perhaps it is time to use a bit of what is called critical management analysis to unravel the phenomenon of the modern university ‘Chief Executive Officer’.

Asking Vice Chancellors what they do is hardly sensible. We will likely be told only the official line. So we are forced to  look, to observe and to analyse. That’s where it gets difficult. What any boss does is usually done behind closed doors or presented to the outside world in stage managed ways.

The question of what top managers do is one of the least asked ones in the study of modern business. The ocean of books on management don’t tell you what bosses do, but what their authors think bosses should do. Henri Fayol set the pattern a century ago with his suggestion that a boss  should plan, organize, coordinate and control. Almost all the books that have followed are variations on these themes. If you are a senior manager it does wonders for your self esteem to think that this is what you really do. In this world you rarely mess up, you don’t have affairs with your assistants, you don’t spend time wondering where you will be in the next pay league table or talking to your accountant about the latest tax wheeze. Strangely no CEO, or Vice Chancellor for that matter, is ever motivated by the hope of a trip to ‘the Palace’.

In the real world, things are rather different. One senior university press officer I once knew told me that he knew his days were numbered when he made the mistake of laughing when, on their first meeting, a new Vice Chancellor asked him how to get into Who’s Who.

But there is some research that can help us. Three famous discussions have given three different but complementary answers to our question. Together, they seem to encapsulate the life and purpose of the modern business VC.

In 1974 Stephen Marglin made his career by asking ‘what do bosses really do?’ His answer was that ‘the social function of hierarchical work organization is not technical efficiency but accumulation’. Bosses exist to make workers work for ends over which they have no control. For Marglin the industrial revolution was about the search for forms of work organisation and technology that removed autonomy from those at the bottom in the workshops and factories. Today we have an educational organisational revolution based on the same logic. This is always presented as a search for technical efficiency but its measures are self referential and deflect us  from discussing real questions of power, control and purpose. In Marglin’s terms being a modern VC is all about the assertion of authority over a potentially unruly workforce.

From a very different perspective Henry Mintzburg went further. He thought that it was a good idea to observe top bosses at close quarters. Mintzberg was only allowed to see what his target bosses wanted him to see.  But even so the results were still dramatic. The ‘facts of management’ had little link to Fayol’s  folklore. Mintzberg’s world is one analysed a world of  ceremonies, presentations. More information is gathered from chats than from informed consultation. It is a world of guessing and intuition rather than any serious grasp of data, reflection and planning.

So if bosses and university VCs are not about efficiency or grand visions how do they come up with their policies? An important part of the answer was supplied by two Americans called De Maggio and Powell.

Bosses, they said, engage in mimetic behaviour, creating institutional isomorphism. That  is frightening talk. It’s the sort of language you need to use to become a famous academic.  In fact, it is just an overly complex way of way of saying that bosses copy what everyone else is doing. The result is that is organisations become similar. This is OK if what everyone is doing makes sense. Often, though, as the copycat behaviour of banking CEOs showed, it doesn’t have to. But so long as you are part of the crowd you can’t really go wrong. And if it does go wrong, then since everyone was doing it, the finger can’t be pointed at you personally. Look at the crazes that have gone through UK universities.

This copycat behaviour accounts for the way that vice chancellors tell us  they have unique solutions to the unique problems of each university only for them to end up doing the same thing in similar looking organisations. We have the same key performance indicators, the same drives for new buildings, the same reorganisations, the same performance management systems, the same need to have far flung sites across the globe and then go on world tours to visit them. You can probably add to it. If Marglin’s world of its hierarchy as power over ends, and if Mintzberg’s world on is one where managers with a limited capacity for real vision, then modern vice chancellors also succeed, as the great Ray Davies once said, by becoming ‘dedicated followers of fashion’.


The UCU HE Pay & Equality ballot opened on Tuesday 15 January and closes on Friday 22 February. Download a leaflet here and a poster here.


  1. We are a smaller union and so forgetting about us (or not mentioning us) is perhaps understandable, but just wanted to say that members of the EIS-ULA are also balloting over the same issue. The EIS-ULA represent academic staff working in Scottish post-92 institutions. Our ballot opens on Jan 22nd and closes on March 5th.


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