Forget the word higher, it’s about the education

11th March 2016 at 00:00
Life as a vice-chancellor is all too similar to that of a headteacher, but universities have a lot to learn from schools on pastoral care and professional development

On my first weekend as vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham, last September, I took my wife Joanna out for an Indian in the town, and noticed that the waiters were being particularly attentive. Could there be any other similarities, I wondered, between being a v-c and being a head, than merely receiving preferential treatment in the local curry house? I’ve spent much of the past few months reflecting on the difference between running schools and universities. Few heads have made the transition to vice-chancellorship, while none, to my knowledge, have yet moved the other way.

On the face of it, running institutions at both levels has little in common. But is the task so different? No two schools, like no two universities, are the same. Wellington College, where I was headteacher for 10 years, was large for an independent school, with more than 1,000 students, mostly boarding, with two academies, two schools in China and a junior school to oversee. Buckingham, conversely, is unusually small for a university, with just 2,500 students, and 450 staff, which makes the transition perhaps far easier than it would have been if I’d moved from a primary to a giant university such as Manchester or Leeds.

My first four months as a v-c proved remarkably similar to my job as a head, with my top priorities being virtually identical. At Buckingham, as at Wellington, I give the most time to acquiring new students, and of the best possible quality. Visiting feeder schools, hosting events here and trying to devise novel advertising, all preoccupy my mind. The quality of academic results is another core concern. My near-obsession with GCSE, A-level and International Baccalaureate results has been replaced by a new metric.

Financial worries keep me awake at night at Buckingham as they did at Wellington, because the buck stops on the v-c’s desk. Raising money for development is another big preoccupation, taking perhaps 20 per cent of my overall time at university, compared with 10 per cent of my time at school.

The institution’s reputation is the responsibility of the v-c, as it is for the head. We all know we are judged by it, but it is devilishly difficult to know how to bolster it. The levers may, or may not, be in our hands, but when we pull them, often, nothing happens. Appointing the best staff is one of the most important undertakings in both institutions. I find myself relying upon senior colleagues to run their own domains effectively and impressively, and they seem uncannily good here at doing just that. The v-c, like the head, is responsible for setting the tone and culture of the organisation, and the best ways to put my values across are much the same – staff meetings, smaller forums and, last and least satisfactory of all, email communications.

The v-c, like the head, is primarily responsible for the organisation’s strategy, though it is a shared activity with governors. Managing governing bodies, and particularly the chair, seems to be almost identical in both organisations. So, too, chairing meetings with the senate echoes chairing meetings of staff in schools. V-cs, much like headteachers, are the public faces of their institutions, representing them to alumni, to the local community, and to government at local, regional and national levels. As v-c, I battle with the same imponderable questions – the impact of digitalisation and globalisation, affordability and ever-rising costs, achieving greater social diversity, and how to market and internationalise the brand.

Differences between both jobs are comparatively few. Parents – a central preoccupation of headteachers – rarely disturb the equilibrium of v-cs. Research and research funding are heartland issues for all v-cs, and are how universities build their reputations.

In nearly 20 years as a headteacher, I’ve hardly ever met v-cs or other senior figures from universities to talk about the nature of our jobs and how our institutions could work more closely together. A survey I conducted last year with sixth-form headteachers for a booklet on teaching at university suggests that the perception of lack of sharing across the divide and interest from universities about teaching in sixth-forms, is widespread.

Beyond visiting schools to try to persuade students to join their institutions, universities don’t display much interest in school life. This is a loss, because there are two clear areas where universities have much to learn: after all, a student leaving school aged 18 in June is not a totally different being from the student who arrives at university three months later.

Challenges continue after 18

Universities have much to learn from schools about professional teaching and learning, as well as how to adapt teaching to students of different abilities and those with learning difficulties. Teachers in schools must participate in initial teacher training, followed by induction, mentoring, inspections, regular lesson observations and appraisals. Professional development is taken seriously by all good teachers. Why should it be different for universities? Some higher education leaders say that the quality of teaching at university is uniformly good, and that there is nothing to be learned from schools because university is fundamentally different. But these attitudes don’t cut it. Too many at universities are keen on the “higher” part of their name, but are less keen or reflective about the “education” part.

Pastoral care is the other area where universities could learn from schools, especially from the Boarding Schools’ Association, which has developed excellent procedures for looking after students at both state and independent boarding schools. Helping students adapt with the transition to university life in the first term and doing more to support those who experience emotional and mental difficulties should be areas of focus for universities. Too many students drop out or experience psychological problems, which could be helped by a proactive approach.

Now that’s all off my chest, I think I might go out for another chicken tikka masala.

Anthony Seldon was master of Wellington College until 2015 and is now vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham

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