On any measure higher education today is a big enterprise. In Australia alone, the sector employs more than 100,000 staff, educates over a million students, total operating revenue amounts to around $27 billion, and conducts often ground-breaking research across diverse fields.

The university “business model” has transformed from a community of scholars to that of a key player in innovation and knowledge creation and transfer. Like it or not, universities must be administered and managed if not as a business, then at least in a business-like manner.

Research conducted in the UK has charted the growth of a relative newcomer to university management teams – the pro vice-chancellor, aka the PVC. The number of PVCs can differ from university to university, in Australia from as a few as three to as many as 12.

Writing in The Guardian Sue Shepherd details the results of her research into educational leadership, which centred on a census of PVCs and which she presented to the recent annual conference of the British Educational Leadership, Management and Administration Society.

Until recently, she says, PVCs were mainly seen in relatively new universities where the role had always been a permanent management position.

In the older universities PVCs had traditionally been “hybrid academic-managers” conducting the work part-time while maintaining an underlying academic career. However, the role had now transitioned into a full-time job.

The emergence of the full-time PVC, she contends, reflects a change of culture “in which an academic management career has been legitimised”.

“Aspiring managers no longer feel the need to feign reluctance or be coy about their management ambitions.”

The vast majority of PVCs she interviewed for her research were not the “reluctant” or “good citizen” managers of old.

Instead, they had made a conscious decision to take “a management path” and typically became PVCs by “climbing the academic management hierarchy” from head of department to dean.

Most did not want to stop there, aspiring to become a vice-chancellor.

“They are motivated by a desire for a seat at the top table and to make a strategic contribution,” she says.

She quotes one PVC as saying: “It’s my one chance to paint on a really big canvas … to really change things.”

Some admitted being attracted by the high salary or the “being-in-charge angle” with one reported as saying “many academics like power more than they are prepared to admit”.

She writes: “Most pro vice-chancellors I spoke to are happy to call themselves managers and to assert their right to manage other academics.”

Shepherd argues that “some important things are lost” when academic management becomes a full-time career.

“The strength of the traditional part-time academic-manager lay in their expert knowledge and credibility with academic colleagues,” she says.

“For full-time managers, divorced from day to day academic activities, specialist knowledge rapidly becomes out-of-date and professional credibility increasingly difficult to maintain.”

The result, she contends, is “a growing gulf between career track managers and the academic community”.

Is she right?