An Academic Registrar looks forwards

Transparent arrangements for tuition fees, credit arrangements for student transfers, anxiety about arrangements for quality assessment; these are part of the concerns of an Academic Registrar.  I have them all neatly recorded in my notebooks from summer term 1998.

I’ve had several looks at 1997/98, which was my first full academic year as an academic registrar.  In the first term we were still digesting the Dearing report, the second term focused on strategic challenges and the opportunities for lifelong learning, and I even had a look at that year’s AUA Conference.  Inevitably the third term of any academic year is dominated by assessment and I have notes recording the challenges of two-tier examination boards, which appear to have gone off very efficiently (helped by the simple trick of being able to bring up student records on a big screen).   There’s also the end-of-year cycle of committees, where Parkinson’s law requires that policy development has to expand to fill the time available for its completion so the agendas are all full.

Tuition Fees

The Government had brought in a £1000 fee, but had managed to skip much of the wisdom that Dearing had imparted into his proposed scheme and we were preparing for the practicalities of an up-front fee payable by students or their families.   The fees working work has to grapple with payment terms: invoices and instalments; credit cards or post-dated cheques; fines or loss of privileges for missed deadlines.


Local Vice-Chancellors had agreed to set up a group to look at credit rating and transfer.  Six HEIs had gathered to compare structures with a view to better facilitating movement.  It emerged that we had an interesting range of module sizes; 5, 10, 15, 20, 30 and 40.  Some HEIs had specific links with FECs, and it was reported that there would be strong support from FE for offering generic first year provision that could lead onto different HEIs.  However, the research intensive university in the group reported that while it did do transfers, these were limited to the Russell Group ‘because of academic reasons’ (says my notes).  The meeting ended with the prospect of some subject areas meeting to align curricula (naturally nothing came of that).


The Dearing report had tried to bring together the twin systems of quality assessment (run by the funding councils) and quality audit (run by HEQC).  There were a lot of meetings focused on what could be expected from the QAA.  Teaching quality assessment (TQA) was continuing, but complaints about the workload were growing stronger.  Hopes that an enhanced external examiner system could replace external assessment were fading as the notion of a register of examiners lost traction.  Attending a QAEN meeting in May, I noted the conflicts in the sector, including what should be done about ‘iffy’ standards – would QAA step in?  As with our current debate on subject TEF, there were issues about how we should define subjects, especially when these were constructs outside an HEI’s own structures.  Work would progress to build up the ‘academic infrastructure’ – which is all now coming down…

1998 vs 2018 

There doesn’t seem to be much difference twenty years apart.  The ebb and flow of the academic year is pretty similar; plagiarism hearings mingle with meetings about admissions targets.  There was an anxiety about the impact of changes to national systems, especially the unintended consequences for providers not in the golden triangle.  The thread through all of this is trying to find the best solution for the institution and its students in the face of shifting external pressures.

Meantime, I do wonder if I’m currently taking detailed enough notes to make sense of all of this in 2038 when, no doubt, some of the policy issues on fees, credit and quality will be settled.

The Vice-Chancellor appreciated

Was it always better in the past?  After a recent talk, the question was posed as to whether it is as bad now as its ever been for universities.  You’d had to say ‘no’.  And associated with that question is the question about the way universities are managed.

Even in the 20th Century you’d have plenty of examples – the universities were highly precarious until the 1960s, wars and depressions made unimaginable calls on their resilience.  But even when the Robbins settlement was made, there were still crises to be overcome.  In order to check that I re-read Ann Gold’s edited tribute to her brother: ‘Edward Boyle – His life by his friends’.  It confirmed that things were very grim in 1973-74 and again in 1981.  But they also highlighted the leadership that this Vice-Chancellor offered.

Stubley, Trevor, 1932-2010; Lord Edward Charles Gurney Boyle (1923-1981), CH, MA, LLD, DLitt, Hon, FRCS, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leeds (1970-1981)

Stubley, Trevor; Lord Edward Charles Gurney Boyle (1923-1981), CH, MA, LLD, DLitt, Hon, FRCS, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leeds (1970-1981); The Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery, University of Leeds

Edward Boyle was Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leeds from 1970 to 1981.  He was the first politician to be appointed a Vice-Chancellor, having been MP for Handsworth from 1950 to 1970.  Chris Chataway thought that one the most important legacies from his ministerial career came at the moment when Robbins was published as ‘it was probably Edward who argued most strongly for university expansion’ (Chataway, 1991, p110).

Boyle came to the Vice-Chancellor’s job at Leeds having never worked in a university.  Although he’d done well at Oxford, he’d come there after working at Bletchley Park in the war, he surprised all by getting a third class degree.

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As well as being active in the Conservative Association, Boyle was an active debater, going on a seven month tour of the US with Tony Benn, who he succeeded as President of the Oxford Union.

Student politics were to the fore when he took of the role of Vice-Chancellor.  His predecessor had retired early after a difficult period of student unrest.  The book contains two substantive contributions on his work as Vice-Chancellor which are worth reading in their entirety as they recount a certain style of leadership.  First Challis writes:

Lord Boyle saw his role not as the Jarratt-style chief executive of the university but primarily as chairman of the University Senate. Senate’s own concept of its importance was reinforced by the emphasis which he placed upon it and by his belief in the importance of debate as a means of achieving consensus in key decisions of vital importance to the university or one its departments.  (Challis, 1991, p 126)

Well-briefed by his colleagues, Challis describes his readiness to debate and be challenged.  His political background helped when faced with a projected substantial deficit for 1974-75, calling all the staff together to explain his proposed approach.  Challis delights in telling the consequences of his decision not to replace his driver and therefore abandon the university car, requiring him to catch the bus.  Later in the book there’s a description of the ‘story or legend’ that ‘he once took his friend Edward Heath to the university by bus, police cars falling in in front and behind the bus in a solemn and unusual procession’ (Walsh, 1991, 140).

It’s clear that the scale of the university was different, Challis recounts him and the Deputy Registrar, James Walsh, journeying over a hundred miles to see the parents of a student who had failed his examinations (Challis, 1991, 133).  Sue Slipman explains how Boyle attempted to deal with an occupation in 1974, asking them politely to turn out a few lights (it was in the midst of power cuts in the city resulting from striking miners) to which the Maoists determined to turn them all on (Slipman, 1991, 136).

I would commend the book to those interested in higher education leadership.  In the second substantial chapter on Boyle as Vice-Chancellor William Walsh describes in more detail how he managed to have his view prevail.  It came from taking seriously the idea of the university as a self-governing community, immersing himself in the detail of the deliberative structures of the university and winning arguments.

When I was a student union officer at Leeds, a decade after Boyle had died in post, he was still held in great affection and his dictums were still cited as university policy; as Walsh notes

As a Vice-Chancellor he was able, out of the deepest conviction, to uphold the noblest purpose of the institution – teaching in the atmosphere of study and research, as he liked to put it – with a vivid sense of the intrinsic value of the individual. (Walsh, 1991, 143)

I don’t bring this portrait out to chide current vice-chancellors for not attending enough committees, or for not upholding its values, because I think they do both of those.  I bring it out because universities have had tough times in the past and come through them.  It’s also a helpful example of how someone can come from outside the sector into the VC’s role and be very successful at it.   It’s not necessary to have been an academic to run a university successfully, but you do need to be intelligent, engaging, and committed.



Challis, C, 1991, ‘The Vice-Chancellor at Work’ in Gold op cit
Chataway, C, 1991, ‘At the Education Ministry: His Junior Minister’s View’ in Gold op cit
Gold, A (ed) 1991, Edward Boyle – His life by his friends, Basingstoke, Macmillan
Slipman, S, 1991, ‘The Vice-Chancellor and Student Unrest’ in Gold op cit
Walsh, W, 1991, ‘The Vice-Chancellor in Office’ in Gold op cit