By Harry Cross
Although no one doubts that vice-chancellor Chris Higgins’s early retirement is a long-planned career move, it is hard to deny that it is overhung by a severe deterioration in relations between the University Executive and almost every other university stakeholder.
This has culminated in staff members threatening to resign en masse, a Senate motion to reduce the Vice-Chancellor’s powers, pressures being placed on student journalism and outbursts of anger by residents in public meetings directed at the University.
The problem is not personal, but institutional.
Growing resentment between Vice-Chancellors and students is currently commonplace in UK universities and Higgins is not the only one to stand down.
This coincides with moves by the government to commercialise higher education, by making graduates who are attractive company employees and commercially lucrative research the end objective of university education, rather than free thinking and academia for their own sake.
In universities everywhere, staff and students are discovering whether their Vice-Chancellor is a willing collaborator in such projects or part of an active resistance defending the soul of higher education. In the case of Higgins, his notorious centralisation plan is nothing more than a restructuring to allow individual university services to be opened to private tender, taking control away from staff and students.
What is to be done? The Senate’s motion to modify the Vice-Chancellor’s powers was a first attempt at an institutional solution. However, students remain systematically excluded from top university governance, including the selection of Higgins’s successor. If the outgoing Vice-Chancellor is responsible for a lack of transparency or collective decision-making, surely his former henchmen should not be the ones selecting his successor?
The DSU and JCRs should call to reform and democratise the office of Vice-Chancellor. Union officials should have a say in proposing and selecting names on the final shortlist of candidates. Students and staff could then vote for the next Vice-Chancellor from this shortlist based on a programme and a vision for Durham University.
Precedents exist. In 2012, at Sciences Po Paris, students occupied lecture halls to protest the shadowy procedure used to replace their director. At Liège University in Belgium, the university community elected their rector for the first time earlier this year.
At Durham, students, disgruntled staff and a newly-elected City Council should unite behind a project that defends a healthy academic environment in harmony with its local community.
Whatever form higher education policy takes in the coming years, an elected Vice-Chancellor will help guarantee that University officials act in the interests of the community they represent.