Leader: New hope for old school

October 10, 2003

One swallow doesn't make a summer, but the appointment of Rick Trainor as principal of King's College London is an encouraging sign for the unity of a sector that has been moving relentlessly in the opposite direction. Not only is the Greenwich University vice-chancellor the first person to move at this level from a new university to an old (David Melville arrived at the University of Kent via the Further Education Funding Council) but the mould has been broken by a Russell Group institution - hitherto regarded by critics elsewhere in higher education as the last bastion of elitism.

Like Roderick Floud, whose election as president of Universities UK represented another symbolic advance for the former polytechnics, Professor Trainor has a background in the old universities. He also conforms to the recent stereotype of non-British leadership in the Russell Group. But, even if he is not the typical new university head, the impact of his appointment should not be underestimated. In an age when many of the key decisions facing vice-chancellors demand business skills as much as academic experience, it is at least arguable that new university structures provide a better training ground than the traditional route of professor and pro vice-chancellor in the older institutions.

No one should be surprised that it has taken 12 years from the notional disappearance of the binary line for a selection committee to widen its sights; academic snobbery will endure much longer than that. But where King's has ventured, others will surely follow. The polarisation of higher education into different (and often opposing) groups may have been inevitable, but it hampers universities and colleges in their dealings with government, frustrates business and confuses the public. Anything that helps to break down those barriers will be to the long-term benefit of all.

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