Atkins objections: ‘academic snobbery’?

Lack of experience of large research budgets won’t harm Hefce chief, say supporters. Paul Jump writes

August 1, 2013

The suggestion that Madeleine Atkins’ ability to run the Higher Education Funding Council for England will be hampered by her lack of experience of administering large research budgets is “ridiculous”, a senior sector figure has argued.

The Coventry University vice-chancellor was named as successor to Sir Alan Langlands last week. Prior to taking over at Coventry in 2004, Professor Atkins held senior roles at Newcastle University, and has degrees from the universities of Nottingham and Cambridge. She is also a member of Hefce’s board.

Critics have argued that she lacks the intimate knowledge of the quality-related (QR) research funding stream that is acquired by running a research-intensive institution. However, Steve West, vice-chancellor of the University of the West of England and chair of the University Alliance (of which Coventry is a member), suggested that this “ridiculous” argument derived from “academic snobbery” about post-1992 universities.

“This is about appointing the right person with the leadership skills to help the sector. Any chief executive builds the best team possible to do the job and leads that team. They don’t have to be an expert in everything,” he said.

Pam Tatlow, chief executive of Million+, which represents a number of post-92s, said that Professor Atkins’ appointment was an indication that post-92s were no longer seen as “second best”.

Professor Atkins had made a “sea-change difference” at Coventry, she added, making its courses more “entrepreneurial and employer-focused”, and introducing variable fee levels via its cut-price spin-off, Coventry University College.

Professor West also pointed to Professor Atkins’ pioneering international agenda, with Coventry partnering employers outside the UK, such as the Emirates Aviation College in the United Arab Emirates. He said such innovations had arisen out of Professor Atkins’ “steely calmness in working through the implications of policy change”.

He expected her to show similar “backbone” when dealing with ministers, thus continuing Sir Alan’s legacy of ensuring that “we were not pounded by too much daft thinking” from the government.

Professor West also dismissed suggestions that the role of Hefce chief executive had been diminished – and potential candidates dissuaded – by the coalition’s removal of large amounts of Hefce teaching funding and consequent doubts about how it will wield regulatory power. The current “period of flux” would give Professor Atkins a “huge opportunity to influence – provided ministers are in listening mode”.

Alex Bols, chief executive of the 1994 Group, also endorsed Professor Atkins’ appointment, saying her sector-spanning background would allow her to champion higher education in the “corridors of power” ahead of the next spending round (which is widely expected to be very tough).

Roger Brown, co-director of the Centre of Higher Education Research Development at Liverpool Hope University, said Hefce “could have done far worse” than appoint Professor Atkins. “She hasn’t got a…personal agenda. She is straight and sensible, very hard-working and determined, and is not as egotistical as many of her male colleagues,” he said.

But, he added, she would have a tough job because the government’s plan for Hefce to wield regulatory power via its remit to “designate” courses for public funding was “a ramshackle effort that won’t work”.

paul.jump@tsleducation.com

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