Check emails, fix up meeting with councillors, buy Kit Kat

November 1, 2002

Just what do vice-chancellors do all day? Harriet Swain joins Michael Brown of Liverpool John Moores University to find out, in the first in a series on the working lives of people in higher education, All in a day's work.


: Michael Brown

Post : vice-chancellor Liverpool John Moores University

Length of time in the job : two years

Salary :£134,000

Loves : working somewhere that is trying to achieve all the things he believes in

Hates : dealing with year-on-year budget cuts from government

Perhaps it is because Michael Brown arrived as vice-chancellor and chief executive at Liverpool John Moores only two years ago. Perhaps it is that, as he admits, "being vice-chancellor is a lonely job. You tend to have your friends and interests elsewhere." Whatever the reason, his enormous office - filled with greeny-blue leather suites, shiny dark wood, shelves of files, photographs of former chancellors and a silver university mace - is strangely devoid of personal touches. His only contribution to the decor appears to be a set of holograms, made when he was lecturer in physics at Loughborough University in the 1980s. The view from his large windows is of a stretch of wasteground attached to a dilapidated church, although he has plans for this.

Brown arrives in his office and will not leave for the next six hours (a bathroom is en suite).

The first cafetière of the day is delivered by his secretary (she will provide coffee another seven times today) and the first meeting begins soon afterwards. It is with Janet Martin, corporate communications manager, who says there have been a few calls about the ongoing A-level fiasco and warns that a piece of research carried out by the university has been misreported, upsetting the researcher concerned. There is time for a quick gossip about other recent calls from journalists and possible marketing ideas before she leaves at 8.30.

Normally, this meeting would be with the new director of marketing, but she is on a course run by Common Purpose, a company that trains "leaders". Hers is a new post at a senior level in the university, alongside the director of finance and the pro vice-chancellors. It makes it clear how important marketing has become, says Brown, who is a fellow of the Chartered Institute of Marketing. "The market is changing, the way students behave is changing and we have to track that carefully."

When he first arrived, he says, he decided to talk to everyone in small groups and then ask for feedback. The upshot was a new mission statement and restructuring to create a simplified line of management, with an emphasis on "empowering" people. He is also spending generously on management training, based on compliance with the European Foundation for Quality Management Excellence Model. This, he says, is a strategy developed by business that obeys the principles of "management by fact not by assertion" - a concept that appeals to him as a physicist - and "it is not the manager doing it, it is everyone doing it". The model "encourages you to hold up a mirror to yourself and be prepared not to be pleased with what you see".

Steve Kenny, pro vice-chancellor, development, arrives to report on the appointment of the director of quality support and on training for new directors. They discuss progress with a new quality assurance system and deadlines for new courses. Brown asks if Kenny has heard of the "diploma supplement", which was talked about at a recent meeting in Brussels, and they decide it is something they should look into with a view to incorporating it in their new student-administration system.

Brown also presses Kenny for gossip from the recent Universities UK meeting, which Kenny attended in his place. Kenny says the main talking point was how angry everyone was at higher education minister Margaret Hodge for saying vice-chancellors needed training. He was also shocked at how much everyone ate and drank - an opportunity for Brown to relate his favourite joke. "What's the difference between a vice-chancellor and a shopping trolley? You can get more food and drink inside a vice-chancellor."

Brown prepares for the next meeting, with Tim Johnston from Amion Consulting. Johnston has been working on a feasibility study for a new science park in Liverpool. He is briefing Brown first on the presentation he gave that morning to city councillors and others about the project, and then on progress on buying a suitable site. The briefing is urgent because the local paper was at that morning's meeting so Brown may have to face questions.

Johnston arrives. He says a couple of councillors have reservations about the science park idea and suggests Brown reassures them. They discuss how to recruit a chief executive for the project and go through the agenda for the forthcoming board meeting of the Liverpool Science Park Working Group, before arranging to meet up again. Johnston turns out to be a consultant on many of the major projects in the city and they discuss others that involve the university, plus possible plans for the derelict site outside Brown's window. Liverpool will benefit from European Union Objective One funding until 2006, and opportunities to secure that funding for projects are getting smaller - hence the pace of building work around the city. Brown says Liverpool's two universities are responsible for a quarter of a billion pounds going into the local economy each year, but the relationship works both ways. "If we get the city centre right, entertainment right, the place cleaned up, then students will want to come here."

Peter Ralphs, chief executive of the Liverpool Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and Peter Vaughan, the university's director of management, arrive. Ralphs wants to discuss the possibility of the university using space in the Chamber of Commerce to provide continuing professional development courses. He says previous links with the university have been unsatisfactory because academics from the business school were not familiar enough with the "knockabout" style of everyday business, while business people were suspicious of theory. Brown says he is very keen to build up better links and reveals that he is appointing a director of enterprise "to form an interface between the university and the commercial sector".

Ralphs and Vaughan leave not entirely convinced by each other, but Brown is confident that important first steps have been taken.

Time to check emails and ask his secretary to fix up a meeting with the hostile councillors. Could she also buy some Kit Kats?

Philip Sullivan director of the Excellence Model Project at De Montfort University arrives. He is working with Brown, who was pro vice-chancellor at De Montfort for eight years before coming to John Moores, on a project funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England to explore the wider use of the Excellence Model in universities. Sullivan is reporting back on strategic planning workshops he has been running and on the project's latest developments. He is highly enthusiastic. Brown, too, tucking into a Kit Kat, is thrilled with the feedback from the workshops and suggests a new source of funding for Sullivan to try.

Sullivan leaves, and is succeeded by Allan Bickerstaffe, pro vice-chancellor, infrastructure, and Ken Catford, estate manager, development. Brown's restructuring, including the appointment of the new marketing director, means office space has to be reshuffled. Catford spreads out a large plan of the university buildings and explains the complicated series of manoeuvres, and the tough negotiations behind some of them, that is involved in fitting everybody into a suitable space. Brown is relieved. He has been receiving complaints about all the building work and Catford assures him that things should start to improve. They discuss other building schemes, including, again, what to do with the dilapidated site across the road.

Two officials arrive from the government office for the Northwest, along with Gary Kelleher, pro vice-chancellor, delivery. Plates of sandwiches and more coffee arrive. Kelleher wants to vent his concern that the university is unable to engage in some of the big government-funded projects it would like to do because it is being asked to bear too much risk. Worse, the goalposts sometimes appear to have been moved at the last minute. The government officials make soothing noises - "system changes", "new structures" and "work together". But Kelleher asks to continue the discussion at a later date.

After he leaves, the officials take Brown through the agenda of the objective one strategy sub-committee, of which he has just been appointed chair. He leafs through the thickish document while they talk and assure him that the sub-committee has the power to make a significant difference.

Brown finally leaves his office, making his way to a committee room on the floor below. He has just been appointed to the board of the Liverpool & Merseyside Theatres Trust and this is his first meeting. Everyone welcomes him to the board and, as he has been expecting, asks him if he would like to become chair. He agrees. Once everyone has introduced themselves, details begin to emerge about the issues facing the trust. Brown listens, nodding. He never makes notes, he says later, just keeps everything in his head and puts it on paper later in the evening or over the weekend.

The meeting breaks up with Brown agreeing to get in touch with theatre staff as soon as possible. He returns to his office for a meeting with Frank Sanderson, former director of the business school and now executive adviser to the vice-chancellor. This new role involves responsibility for liaising with outside agencies and reviewing policies to ensure they are put into action. As Sanderson describes recent visits to the Northwest Development Agency's annual conference and the Northwest Universities Association, Brown decides it is time for another Kit Kat. They discuss other projects, including further links with Liverpool University, and Brown agrees to explore the possibility of a joint smart card with Liverpool City Council.

Sanderson goes, leaving a brief window for Brown to ring his wife and check emails.

Victoria Hann, president of the Students' Union, arrives to show Brown around the new union bar. She has been elected for a second year, so they know each other relatively well. Brown makes appreciative noises about the flashing lights facility, the DJ station and food selection before dropping in on the new student jobs centre, run by the private company Workbank, to check progress.

The tour is done and, as it is Friday, Brown decides to call it a day. He insists that today has been typical, although he would usually have more breaks between meetings, possibly more day-to-day staffing problems to deal with and would finish at about 19.00, after responding to issues that have come up during the day, such as answering emails and keeping people informed.

"You have to keep in touch with what is going on in the university, with the local external scene, with what is coming from the DTI [Department of Trade and Industry] and DFES [Department for Education and Skills]. You have to be accessible but you cannot be totally accessible because there are so many other pressures - you also have to be seen out and about. You are always compromising," he says.

Nevertheless, he tries to avoid evening functions. "I could have lunch and dinner out every night of the week but what's the point?" he says. "You have to have a private life."

Next week: Nicholas Hewitt, head of the school of modern languages, University of Nottingham.

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