The VC who tried to ban elevenses

Which rules should govern students’ lives has often been a live issue. Student disciplinary codes are a balancing act between the rules necessary in a community living close by each other, especially to maintain academic integrity, and the rights of students as people, now mostly seen as adults.

When thinking about this, we often concentrate on the major changes that came in the late 1960s and early 1970s, following a change in the age of majority, part of a major change in social attitudes, and after a period of intensive student political action. However, there was an earlier period of change, just after World War One. This is exemplified by the actions of Dr Lewis Farrar, Rector of Exeter College (1913-1928) and Vice Chancellor of the University of Oxford (1920-1923).

Farrar was in many ways a bridge between the ancient university and the modern. Elected to a fellowship at Exeter, the only requirement of which was that he did not marry, he headed off to Germany to undertake study. When it was his turn, Farrar set out to be an activist Vice Chancellor, he saw his role as going further than just chairing meetings. That made him unpopular in a number of areas, but particularly in the area of regulating student lives where he became known as a ‘banner’ for all the things he tried to ban.

Farrar describes one such incident. After the First World war, Oxford accepted a cohort of male students whose entry had been postponed by service. These men had returned with the ‘habit of taking coffee or chocolate or other café stuff … about eleven in the morning’ (Farrar, p295). He was dismayed that this habit was taken up by ‘our lazy and self-indulgent boys and girls’ with the result that:

… cafés began to do a roaring trade between 11 and 12 in the morning, undergraduates of both sexes sitting there together indulging themselves with pleasant conversation and unnecessary and unmanly food. … This … which was a new disease, was rampant, and was exciting much public talk and censure, as another nail in the coffin of our industry.

Farrar p 295-6

The University was well used to exercising their powers to control bars, which students were strictly forbidden from entering. Farrar drew up a plan with the two Proctors (one more willing than the other) to ban students from cafés in the morning. But he reckoned without the women’s colleges, whose heads petitioned against this as ‘their poor girls … could not stand the strain of going from nine to one without sustenance’. He relented, students were not banned from elevenses, but he later regretted this:

… I missed a chance of abolishing a demoralising habit which I hear now on good authority is injuring Oxford. I wish I had been more ruthless and not so susceptible to the feminine appeal.

Farrar p 296

Farrar happily recounts some of the other issues he dealt with: limiting political meetings; refusing permission for a new Oxford Playhouse; worrying about Bolshevik publications; remonstrating with Indian students etc.

Although Farrar had been against the admission of women to degrees in 1896, after the war he agreed it ‘was right for the University to open its doors; which we did cordially and hospitably’ (p281). It was Farrar who presided over the first admission of women to degrees at Oxford.

Farrar was clearly unpopular. He received extensive critical press, was parodied in public and, in the most extraordinary event, he received poisoned chocolates. It turned out what had had been first thought to be powdered glass covering the chocolates was harmless tooth powder, but this all got into the press.

The upshot was, in what Farrar believed was an unprecedented step, he was summoned by Lord Curzon, the Chancellor. Curzon had received a petition asking that Farrar not be appointed to the usual third year of his term of office. This threat was not carried out, but Farrar saw this as a ‘deadly attack on the office of the Vice-Chancellor’ (p317) who might be unable to ‘follow any constructive policy at all’ if the Chancellor could dismiss him. The University would ‘become a mere chaos of colleges’.

It’s possible to see Farrar as a bridge between the ancient and modern University of Oxford, but it’s hard to read his autobiography as anything but extraordinary. It’s been used extensively as source in histories of the university, but it might be worth a proper appraisal of his term of office, as the VC who tried to ban elevenses but also who saw the need for leadership of the university, bringing together the various threads of administration.

Reference: Farrar, L R, 1934, An Oxonian Looks Back, London, Martin Hopkinson Ltd

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




Chief Executive’s pay: a provocation

Lord Adonis has provoked a discussion on Vice-Chancellors’ pay.  Follow his tweets and you’ll see that he moves from the issue of tuition fees to the twin issues of the length of degree courses (which unwisely he linked to long summer holidays for academic staff) and VC’s pay.  There have been comprehensive rebuttals of the holidays issue – (see the Plashing Vole here) but not so obviously on VC’s pay.

This is not a defence of Vice-Chancellor’s pay.  This is not even an attempt to explain all the different facets that make up the reason why Vice-Chancellors pay has increased (one issue – the transfer market for ‘successful’ VCs  – I’ve touched on before).  I just want to touch on an aspect of the change:  that universities are now in a complex ‘market’ situation, and you can start to understand why remuneration committees are getting excitable about recruiting or retaining good Vice-Chancellors.

Universities have always competed for students, staff and resources.  Oxford and Cambridge Colleges built new accommodation blocks in the 18th Century to attract the sons of nobility.  Our central clearing house for admissions is a testament to the competition for the best applicants, even when demand severely outstripped supply.  The rhetoric around these markets has increased however.   Universities have struggled in the past, and the history of mergers hints at those past difficulties.  Starting with the talk of avalanches, we now see market forces at play – the VC at Huddersfield has launched a voluntary severance scheme citing:

“Once again the higher education sector faces many challenges – private providers are being encouraged to enter the marketplace, there is uncertainty about fees and our competitors are being increasingly aggressive in their student recruitment tactics. All this must influence how we shape our strategy for the next few years.

“To ensure that we maintain and develop our place within the market we have begun a process of closely analysing the provision we offer and this will continue into the future.

Different generations will no doubt understand aggressive student recruitment tactics differently; the first prospectus was probably seen as being a bit pushy, certainly De Montfort’s first TV ad was.  The point is that universities’ position as a safe public sector organisation is now under threat, even to the point of ‘market exit’.

One core argument why private sector pay is higher than in the public sector is risk.  In the private sector staff are hired and fired more easily, companies close or are taken over.  As a company can be more volatile, senior managers take greater risks, and should be rewarded.   Universities are not businesses, and comparisons are invidious, but, just for fun, here’s a quick comparison.

RM Plc

Let’s look at RM plc; a ‘major provider of resources, software and services to the education sector’.  RM has had some difficult years as they’ve transitioned out of providing hardware for schools into other services.  RM is heavily dependent on education spending, the bulk of which comes from public sources.  It employs 1800 people of whom 600 are based in India.    Its revenue for the year to November 2016 was £167.6m.


RM’s remuneration policy is set out in its annual report.

The Policy is designed to attract, retain and motivate Directors and senior employees, both to achieve the Group’s business objectives and to deliver outstanding shareholder returns. To achieve this, RM’s Remuneration Policy aims to provide ‘median’ reward compared to comparator groups when acceptable levels of performance have been delivered. For the achievement of outstanding performance, it aims to deliver ‘upper quartile’ remuneration compared to comparator groups.

Helpfully the policy also says it avoids excessive risk taking by executives just to try and maximise their own personal returns.  The chief executive received total remuneration of £655k in the year to Nov 2016 (this includes shares – which accounts for why the sum is significantly down on the total of £1246k in 2015 when he got £749k worth of shares).

University of Bath

The University of Bath employed 2800 staff in the year ending July 2016, and had an income of £263 million.  Clearly it is also dependent on direct and indirect public funding for education and research, but its income has been going up each year, and it is exceeding its targets for surplus generation.


We’ve all seen that the Vice-Chancellor got paid £451k in the year to July 2016, and Lord Adonis pointed out that benefits in kind and external income probably carried that to over £500k.  Although Bath is a successful university, no doubt the attention the news got is because it is not one of ‘leading’ universities (©Russell Group).

The University of Bath isn’t a company, and there’s no suggestion that you could interchange its chief executive with that of RM Plc.  But the chap at RM got paid £200k more in 2016 for running a company with 1000 fewer staff and £100m less revenue/income than Bath.


Lord Adonis rounded on the University of Bath in the House of Lords.  He noted that Bath was a ‘mid-ranking university’ and as the bulk of its funds came directly or indirectly from Government, they should have a say in the pay levels.

… the highly paid should set an example, particularly at a time of pay restraint. The only example the vice-chancellor of the University of Bath is setting to her staff is one of greed.

If the VC at Bath getting £451k is ‘greed’, then why isn’t the same tag applied to the CEO at RM?  Maybe Lord Adonis would think it is, but I think that’s unlikely.  Lord Adonis is a board member at RM and sits on the remuneration committee.  You’d have to assume that he’s signed up to their remuneration policy, and doesn’t think that the CEO getting £655k – a large part coming from school budgets – is setting a bad example.

CEO pay is a general problem.  It cannot be justifiable that their work is valued so much more highly than the work of others in their organisations.  That’s not to say that  there shouldn’t be something of a differential as greater responsibilities are taken on, but not at so steep a gradient.  Universities should push back against the corporate model, no doubt advocated by governors with experience of company boards, against the inflated wages for the CEO/VC.








The Vice-Chancellors who came to tea

Records reveal the arrangements for vice-chancellors to have private dinners with the Prime Minister in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  Viewed as an opportunity for an exchange of views, papers show the careful preparation by civil servants for these encounters.

Occasioned by student unrest, Harold Wilson met with vice-chancellors.  In March 1970 the prospects of further student trouble led to another dinner invitation.  Vice-chancellors would be invited to take a more robust attitude towards their responsibilities although the government might offer to shoulder some responsibility.  The cabinet secretary (Sir Burke Trend) suggested that it could be contrived that the vice-chancellors would ask for the meeting, which would then focus on education policy but also include briefings by the Security Service and the Home Office (Trend 1970)

The student situation had settled down in 1973 when Edward Heath arranged to meet with a wider group of higher education leaders including vice-chancellors, polytechnic directors and heads of colleges of education.

The file shows the careful arrangements made, the sharing of agenda items and choice of participants.  There are even notes between civil servants agreeing that the cost of the dinner should be met by the government.  The briefing for the PM includes the key issues for each group.  For the universities, he is told:

More generally, the Vice-Chancellors are concerned about the role and standing of the universities. They suspect that the Government underprize them and do not consider them “relevant” enough. (Anon, 1973)

Whereas, on the other side of the binary line:

The polytechnics are generally in good heart. They have their preoccupations. Chief among these is the need for greater clarification of their role (particularly their place in the LEA higher education sector and their relationship to the universities) and the massive expansion (trebling) of their student numbers following the White Paper.

The briefing also contains the following biographical notes with character assessments. For example, Bullock is ‘very much the Oxford Yorkshireman, plain-spoken, witty and humane’, Armitage a ‘very resourceful man with excellent judgement which he chooses to conceal under a bumbling manner’.

The record of the meeting, circulated to key ministers, records the informal discussion after dinner.  They had discussed links with industry, the impact of Europe on higher education and the following discussion, which must have been uncomfortable for some.

Thinkers versus Doers

Some representatives of the polytechnics argued that a major mistake made by the universities was to value knowledge for the sake of knowledge. The great majority of graduates would pursue their careers in the world of action, not of reflection: and this basic fact should be reflected in university entrance requirements and in final examinations. At present, however, the universities’ approach was too scholastic, and as evidence of this one could point to the low status of engineers, the academic approach to the training of lawyers and the low standards of linguistic ability in this country. As a society we tended to place a lower value on doing than on thinking, whereas those responsible for higher education should always remember that the vast majority of young people would be actors, not thinkers.  (Roberts 1973)

Heath’s thanks to his visitors were noted, but he continued the theme

Universities too often failed to teach their students to think straight and to recognise quality: and without a thorough training in these basic intellectual processes the next generation would find themselves unable to compete effectively with their contemporaries in other countries. To argue the British case successfully in, for example Paris or Brussels would call for the highest standards of intellect and ability. At the same time the educational system had a major part in creating a more flexible social structure in this country, so that ability, wherever it might be found, could be developed and exploited to the full. (Roberts 1973)

Heath only had another year as Prime Minister, but his Education Secretary, Margaret Thatcher, was also at that dinner and would take up these issues as Prime Minister.



Trend, 1970, Minute to Prime Minister 12 March 1970 National Archives PREM 13/3426

Anon, 1973, Briefing Note Prime Minister’s meeting with representatives of universities, polytechnics and colleges of education National Archives PREM 15/1477

Roberts C, 1973, Record of a discussion held after Dinner at 10 Downing Street on Tuesday 6 March 1973 National Archives PREM 15/1477




Serial Vice-Chancellors

Who’d be a Vice-Chancellor?  Graham Upton has been leader at six higher education providers.  He’s had five interim roles, for example, taking over at Birmingham City.  He’s not the first experienced VC to take on the task as acting as an interim leader: Sir William Taylor took on two interim roles having been director of the Institute of Education, Principal of the University of London and Vice-Chancellor at Hull.

We have certainly seen the rise of the serial Vice-Chancellor.  The role is more fraught than in previous times, and it is clear that governing bodies are looking out for people who can demonstrate that they’ve got the skills and experience to do the job.  With an existing VC there’s a track record to check, and so there’s a growing number of people who’ve done this.

6Professor Graham UptonOxford Brookes, Cumbria, Glyndwr, Birmingham City, Bangor, SOAS
5Sir William TaylorInstitute of Education, London, Hull, Huddersfield, TVU
3Sir Graham DaviesLiverpool, Glasgow, London
Sir Hector HetheringtonExeter, Liverpool, Glasgow
Alfred MorrisUWE, Lampeter, London Metropolitan
Sir Howard Newby*Southampton, UWE, Liverpool
2Professor Cara AitchisonSt Mark & St John, Cardiff Metropolitan
Professor Michael ArthurLeeds, UCL
Dr Robin BakerChichester, Canterbury Christchurch
Professor Graham BaldwinSolent, UCLAN
Professor Kenneth BarkerDe Montfort, TVU
Dame Janet BeerOxford Brookes, Liverpool
Sir David BellReading, Sunderland
Professor Tim BlackmanMiddlesex, Open
Sir Drummond BoneRoyal Holloway, Liverpool
Professor Paul Boyle Leicester, Swansea
Professor Rebecca BuntingBuckinghamshire New, Bedfordshire
Professor Brian Cantor York, Bradford
Sir Paul CurranBournemouth, City
Sir David Eastwood*UEA, Birmingham
Professor Nick FoskettKeele, Bath Spa
Professor Malcolm GiliesCity, London Metropolitan
Sir Peter GregsonQueens, Cranfield
Sir Martin HarrisEssex, Manchester
Sir David HarrisonKeele, Exeter
Sir Alan Langlands*Dundee, Leeds
Professor Koen LambertsYork, Sheffield
Professor Simon LeeLiverpool Hope, Leeds Metropolitan
Professor Carl LygoBPP, Arden
Professor David MaguireGreenwich, Dundee
Sir David Melville*Middlesex, Kent
Sir Anton MuscatelliHerriot Watt, Glasgow
Sir Edward Parkes*City, Leeds
Professor Louise RichardsonSt Andrews, Oxford
Professor Colin RiordanEssex, Cardiff
Sir Hugh RobsonSheffield, Edinburgh
Professor Mark E SmithLancaster, Southampton
Sir Christopher SnowdonSurrey, Southampton
Professor Karen StantonYork St John, Southampton Solent
Professor Adam TickellSussex, Birmingham
Professor David TidmarshAnglia, Birmingham City
Sir Rick TrainorGreenwich, Kings
Professor David VanderLindeBath, Warwick

I have not included people who were heads of constituent institutions and then vice-chancellors of federal universities (London, Wales or Victoria) under rotational systems where the VC was a part-time role.   Four of these (marked*) also intercalated a term at UGC, HEFCE or FEFC into their career; requiring them to leave a VC role, but being snapped up when they left the funding body.  It doesn’t include the international transfer market, where both Oxford and Cambridge have recruited VCs who have led universities elsewhere in the Commonwealth.

This isn’t a foolproof scheme, however.  Robin Baker followed his short stay at Chichester with a short stay at Canterbury.   Bowen & McPherson (2016) point to potential problems when it’s clear that a leader will be looking to move on after a few years; that they won’t make necessary changes, preferring to manage the day-to-day business and then move on.  Part of that process is they might also focus on quick wins, the things that might achieve a league table boost, and again not make long-term difficult decisions.    It must also be a feature in the rise in VC salaries – tempting an established leader to move may involve a pay rise. Keeping an established leader  (who may or may not be getting offers) may also involve a pay rise.

Cursiter, Stanley; Sir Hector Hetherington (1888-1965); Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow;

But, it’s still probably a good bet.  Among the many good leaders who’ve lead more than one university is Sir Hector Hetherington.  A professor at 27, he became Principal of the University College of the South West aged 32.  He subsequently led Liverpool and Glasgow. Twice chair of CVCP, this is the account of his last meeting there:

He made his last appearance at the Vice-Chancellor’s Committee shortly before he retired… in 1961.  As he was about to leave to keep another engagement, the Chairman gave a short valedictory speech.  Then as Hetherington rose and walked slowly towards the door the whole Committee rose spontaneously and stood in silence until he had gone. No other Vice Chancellor had ever received from his peers such a tribute of affectionate regard. He had been the executive head of a College or University almost continuously for over forty years and attained unprecedented supremacy of respect.   (Illingworth 1971 p105)

I’m sure this will continue, although it’s important to note that every serial Vice-Chancellor has to have a first appointment somewhere.  Maybe governors somewhere will advertise for a training vice-chancellorship, one that’s good for a first role…

[updated as more transfers happen but also after being reminded of more distinguished names – but there may be more…] 

* Graham Upton’s fifth role, was at Bangor, from January – August 2019, his sixth started with an overlap with the outgoing director, but became acting director of SOAS on 1 August 2020.

Bowen W & McPherson M, 2016, Lesson Plan, Princeton University Press
Illingworth, C, 1971, University Statesman: Sir Hector Hetherington, George Outram