Private face of a public funder

February 15, 2002

Researcher, author, television personality, vice-chancellor and policy-maker - Howard Newby has done it all. The head of Hefce talks to Pat Leon about a life promoting the cause of higher education

Sir Howard Newby has had a busier week than usual. The demands of the government spending review and two appearances before the Public Accounts Committee have added to the workload of heading the Higher Education Funding Council for England, and his rail commute between offices in Bristol and London and his Wiltshire home. Luckily, he is a train enthusiast.

Sitting in his Centrepoint office, 28 floors above Tottenham Court Road, the one-time rural sociologist likens his role to "patrolling the border country between the world of politics and higher education". A typical week involves juggling meetings with civil servants about policy and operational issues and visiting institutions to hear their concerns. With two sons, one at university and one about to go, he says he is a "participant observer" of higher education.

Newby was born in 1947 to a working-class Derby family - he is still an avid Derby County supporter - and he passed his 11-plus and went to grammar school. But it was winning a scholarship to the prestigious Atlantic College, an international sixth-form college in Glamorgan, that opened his eyes to other worlds.

Although one colleague describes him as "difficult to know" - this is the first time he has agreed to participate in a personal profile - Newby is relaxed and open. He has also been described as highly ambitious, but he says it is more a case of being in the right place at the right time.

In 1967, when he went to the University of Essex to study sociology, his intention was to become a probation officer. "I spent 21 years at Essex and at no stage did I ever think that I'd stay. In my second year I did a project on rural life. I was fascinated and wanted to do a PhD on the subject. Two years into the PhD I was offered a lectureship, something unheard of these days," he says.

Essex's sociology department in the 1970s was radical, and relations between staff and students were close-knit, particularly during the campus troubles of 1973-74. When police came on campus to break up a student picket, sociology lecturers were on the front line. But Newby was not as militant as his more Marxist colleagues. His students used to joke that he was too balanced in his views - an attribute that has served him well in later life.

Commenting on his teaching years, he remarks: "I did lots. I served my time." This included co-writing a textbook, The Problem of Sociology , based on his experience.

His bookwriting started in the summer of 1970. Colin Bell, then head of sociology and now vice-chancellor of Stirling University, asked the shy but very bright young graduate for help in completing a book contract. "It hadn't really started," Newby says. "We sat down and wrote it in six weeks start to finish." The book, Community Studies , became a best-seller and was 20 years in print.

He was soon editing other books with Bell while teaching and doing fieldwork in Framlingham, Suffolk, living with a farming family. His research formed the basis of his first solo publication, The Deferential Worker . It was followed by Green and Pleasant Land ?

Newby had found a niche - little had been written about rural workers and social class. His work attracted international attention and he was invited to become a visiting professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He arrived with wife and six-week-old baby in 1980 to be propelled onto the graduate school's research committee that decided on research funds for projects. "It was a very good training. I got to know about a range of subjects and the mechanics of dealing with research applications and forming judgements. I could also see how the university was organised."

The Wisconsin experience was to prove influential in his theories, not only on research funding but also on the idea of a tiered local higher education system, ranging from open-access community colleges to teaching universities and internationally strong research universities - theories that are at the root of the ongoing controversy over the research assessment exercise.

On his return to Essex in 1983, he became dean of the school of comparative studies while simultaneously directing the Data Archive of the Social Science Research Council. But he says "the real turning point" came when, in 1988, he was "plucked out of relative obscurity" to head the SSRC, which later became the Economic and Social Research Council. "The Department of Education and Science took a gamble on me. The decision raised a few eyebrows," he comments. The then education secretary Kenneth Baker told him: "I spent a lot of time reading your CV."

Some saw the move as a prelude to the Tories closing down the research council, a move attempted under Baker's predecessor Sir Keith Joseph. Ironically, it was probably through Joseph that Newby first came to the attention of Whitehall. Asked by Essex University vice-chancellor Albert Sloman to talk to Joseph about the state of sociology, a huge philosophical debate ensued, while civil servants looked on.

The ESRC was having a tough time. The Thatcher government saw the social sciences as a breeding ground for malcontents. As well as being renamed, the council had its budget cut, its head office moved to Swindon with the other research councils and it lost 70 per cent of its staff.

Shortly after taking over, Newby opened his newspaper one Sunday to see the headline: "Thatcher bans sex survey". The article referred to a mass survey the ESRC was about to conduct jointly with the Department of Health on sexual behaviour. It was the height of the Aids scare. The ESRC found itself waging a media battle about public morals.

The council, says Newby, insisted on the integrity of the research on public health and methodological grounds. The government still withdrew funding but the Wellcome Trust stepped in with more.

That battle over, Newby set about raising the ESRC's profile. He is extremely proud of the reforms of postgraduate training and the emphasis on the human dimension of research into the global environment, innovation and entrepreneurship, science and society. "We had to be seen to be effective in order to get the resources. We had to strike a chord with society," he says.

This desire to make academic work relevant is evident in all his public work, including a television series, The Countryside in Question , which he scripted and presented in 1988. It is also present in his latest role as president of the British Association, "the first social scientist since Sir Claus Moser", where his goal is to increase the ties between science and local communities.

In 1994, Newby was appointed vice-chancellor of Southampton University, which was seeking to become more research-led. "I lay awake at night thinking about how to do it and I realised the answer was to appoint good people and to retain them," he says.

Newby was soon appointed to the executive of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, rising to president in 1999. There he became "fascinated" by policy, he says, particularly the globalisation of higher education and the restructuring needed to move from an elite to a mass system in the UK.

"As we have moved you can see the stresses and strains in universities emerging. The higher education agenda has widened enormously. In the 1970s, we did lots of teaching and some research. Now we have got to teach, research, transfer knowledge, contribute to social inclusion and play a civic role."

No university has the funding to do it all, he says. They have to focus on what they are best at and be rewarded for what they excel at. "Some 20 years ago universities were seen as non-productive, almost parasitical. Now they are more trusted and seen as central to the knowledge economy, yet the structures have not changed. We've become the victims of our own success."

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