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Leadership convergence between older and newer universities – and why we should stop talking about ‘post-92s’

  • 22 September 2022
  • By Rohan Selva-Radov

A new Policy Note published by the Higher Education Policy Institute, Thirty years on: Leadership convergence between newer and older universities (HEPI Policy Note 37) by Rohan Selva-Radov, explores the changing tenure of UK university vice-chancellors. 

The report shows that while the vice-chancellors of post-1992 universities used to serve much longer terms than those at older universities, tenures at both types of university are now around eight years.

In the five years from 1992, immediately after the Further and Higher Education Act (1992) granted university status to polytechnics as well as Central Institutions in Scotland, these institutions’ leaders were in post for on average of 11.5 years. This compared with only 8.8 years at older universities (a gap of around 25%). The disparity has narrowed in the years since, and there is now only a small difference in tenure between the two categories of institution.

This paper, which is being published at the start of the 2022/23 academic year to mark the 30th anniversary of the end of the binary system, argues that this convergence is evidence of how pre- and post-1992 universities have become less different from each other over time.

It also argues that the overarching reduction in vice-chancellor tenure could be a result of the greater demands placed on university leaders – in particular at the former polytechnics, with university designation driving up standards and leading to a broader professionalisation.

Tenure of departing vice-chancellors in years (5-year rolling average)

Rohan Selva-Radov, the author of the paper, said:

It is now clearer than ever that binary divisions between pre- and post-1992 universities are flawed and outdated. The tenure of vice-chancellors varies just as much within these groupings as between them. The change is not just because post-1992 universities have become more like older ones. The types of layered management structures now in place at most UK universities in fact originated in polytechnics, before being copied over to older institutions. 

I hope these conclusions will feed into a broader debate about what we should expect from university leaders, and how long the ‘ideal’ tenure is. At a time when universities are increasingly recognising the importance of diversity in their leadership teams, this reduction in term length could be seen in a positive light, enabling a new generation of vice-chancellors to take up position.

Nick Hillman, HEPI Director and the author of an earlier report on vice-chancellors’ tenure at older universities, said:

Thirty years ago, we upgraded our polytechnics to universities. Ever since, some people have condemned the decision and called for it to be reversed. But this new research confirms that ‘modern’ universities are often indistinguishable from ‘traditional’ universities.

The leadership of the former polytechnics has clearly converged with the leadership of the older institutions, reflecting the way they are regulated and – increasingly – seen by the general public. I am now convinced that we should mark the 30th anniversary of the end of the old binary line by pensioning off the term ‘post-1992’. It no longer seems a useful differentiator.

Rachel Hewitt, Chief Executive of MillionPlus, the Association for Modern Universities, said:

Over the thirty years since the 1992 Act, modern universities have gone from strength to strength, holding an important place in the higher education sector. Their development over this time has made them more similar to their pre-92 peers in a number of ways, including as this important report identifies, in the changing tenure of their leadership. As such, modern universities should always be treated with parity to older institutions. 

However, while acknowledging their increasing similarities, we can also understand their distinctiveness. One of the benefits of our UK higher education sector is its diversity, where different types of university shine in different areas.

Modern universities excel as placemakers in their local area, produce innovative, applied and translational research, deliver excellent teaching and student support, and train tens of thousands of key public service professionals, while leading the way in widening access to higher education. They also collaborate with business, operating nimbly with an eye always on the future. These important roles are critical to our overall higher education system and should be welcomed.

Alison Johns, Advance HE Chief Executive, said:

It is interesting to see many characteristics of the sector drawing together, though the distinctive and individual ‘personality’ of each and every one of our universities is a defining strength of UK higher education.

Leadership plays the key role in shaping our institutions, and we are delighted to offer the sector, both here in the UK and around the world, the opportunity to take part in our global leadership survey which we are launching this week to harness a greater understanding of leadership in the sector and how we can use that knowledge to enhance higher education.

Notes for Editors

  1. HEPI was established in 2002 to influence the higher education debate with evidence. We are UK-wide, independent and non-partisan. We are funded by organisations and higher education institutions that wish to support vibrant policy discussions, as well as through our own events. HEPI is a company limited by guarantee and a registered charity.
  2. HEPI, in conjunction with the UPP Foundation and the University of Sussex, is hosting events at both the Labour and Conservative Party Conferences. For further information, see the Events page of the HEPI website here.

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