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Why are there so few Vice-Chancellors with business backgrounds in the UK?

Few academics with business backgrounds go on to become Vice-Chancellors. Source: Shutterstock

Only eight out of 139 Vice-Chancellors in the UK have a teaching or research background in business and management, said the Chartered Association of Business Schools (CABS). This is despite the fact that business is a popular subject, with 15 percent of all students enrolled in a course in this area – the highest proportion of any subject.

Their study, titled The Path to Becoming a Vice-Chancellor, noted that most university Vice-Chancellors have a background in science, medicine, engineering and social studies, dwarfing those with business backgrounds in comparison.

Meanwhile, Vice-Chancellors with backgrounds in the sciences, social studies, engineering and medicine (including subjects allied to medicine) account for 55 percent of the total, said the report.

Some of the areas where the proportion of Vice-Chancellors with a background in the subject is higher than the student population include the physical sciences and medicine and dentistry.

Why are they underrepresented?

Reasons for the lack of representation of business academics in senior positions may include unfavourable university structures as well as limited research funding opportunities. Source: Shutterstock

Exploring the reasons for the disparity, the report highlighted that: “The relatively late development of business and management as an academic subject has been a factor in limiting the progression of business academics to senior leadership positions within universities.

“Although many business academics have published best-selling books this doesn’t automatically gain the same kudos as publishing in certain academic journals.”

The university structure can also impact opportunities to gain senior roles that enhance career prospects. Flat institutional structures can help progression, but these are typically found in smaller or newer institutions.

Conversely, Deans may find themselves hindered from moving into higher positions at older, research-intensive universities. The perception that business schools are more autonomous “isn’t always helpful in facilitating the progression from business school dean to other senior roles”, noted the report.

It added that “business schools are often seen as somehow separate from the rest of the university and as having a narrower remit than other academic departments. Business academics may be less likely to be considered for cross-functional leadership roles if they are perceived as doing something discrete from the main activities of the institution.”

Limited research funding also plays a role, as the pool of research council funding available for business is typically smaller than other subjects, affecting the reputation of business academics and inhibiting the potential for career progression, CABS notes.

“The vice-chancellor role often requires a level of credibility with faculty members which explains why it is usually filled by those who have spent their career in academia.

“Tightly managed research groups working under the leadership of a principal investigator are also less common in business and management which means that business school deans often struggle to maintain their research output due to being unable to delegate activities to colleagues.”

Interestingly, the report also noted that: “Some business school deans may not want to become a vice-chancellor even if the opportunity arose, as there are arguably more non-academic career avenues open to them than is the case for academics from other fields.”

Consultancy opportunities may be more appealing to business Deans as they offer better financial rewards. While a pro Vice-Chancellor role is seen as a preparatory step towards becoming a Vice-Chancellor, it may not carry much weight, depending on the institution, if there is no line management and no budget, noted the report.

Improving their prospects for senior positions

The report noted that individuals with a proven ability to attract large research grants will be sought for appointment to senior university roles. Source: Pexels

To improve the chances of business academics going into more senior roles, the report recommends business schools be more vocal in demonstrating the value they bring to their university; for example, the revenue they generate in comparison to other academic disciplines.

It added that business schools should interact with the whole university to build collaborations in teaching and learning, demonstrating a propensity to consider the whole institution – a necessary requirement for a Vice-Chancellor.

CABS highlighted that it is also important for business schools to find ways of reaching out to the wider community, adding that aspiring Vice-Chancellors “may find it useful to take on leadership responsibilities with external projects, governance roles within research councils and relationship building roles as their university seeks to deliver its civic mission.”

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