'This university has to be led by academics'

September 26, 2003

Malcolm Grant
University College London

The walls of the cavernous rooms of the provost of University College London have been re-papered but otherwise remain bare. Malcolm Grant, the new incumbent, is awaiting the advice of the curator of the Slade School of Fine Art to help him select artwork.

It's an appropriate metaphor for his attitude to overseeing UCL. Grant, who hit the headlines this week as chairman of the government's agriculture and environment biotechnology commission, believes in consulting the experts before taking decisions. In an interview to mark the start of his tenure, he says: "This university has to be academic-led. The academics set the strategy, and the officers are then given a clear agenda on which to work.

"Our weekly meetings are not a meeting for deans to fight their corner but are a collective strategic opportunity. We work out a programme for exploring the key opportunities and threats that face UCL. Our informal and flexible structure makes it possible for the provost to work closely with the academic community."

Grant has a proven record in university management. Yet as a vociferous advocate of modernisation, his attempts to reform the archaic governance system at the University of Cambridge, where he was pro vice-chancellor, were only partially successful. He says: "I failed to achieve what I thought Cambridge needed on governance, but we got through half the proposals. What upset me was when academics voted against having outsiders on the council. Cambridge has a wealth of alumni who would be willing to serve on council, and the decision smacked of insularity."

Now Grant is turning his mind to running one of the country's biggest and most prestigious universities, which has a turnover of more than £430 million a year. "We are vast," he says. "It's not just the volume of our turnover, it's the proportion of research income, which is very high. The number of students, 18,500,Jmeans that there are problems of fragmentation of where people are located."

UCL - which sprawls over much of Bloomsbury and has institutes as far afield as the Mullard Space Science Laboratory in Surrey - has long been viewed with wariness by some smaller neighbours, many of which it has swallowed over the years.

But Grant says he has no takeover plans. Nor will he try to revive the proposed merger with Imperial College London: "I cannot now forsee any circumstances under which the merger could be resurrected."

Grant is married and has three children. He was born and educated in New Zealand and came to the UK in 1972 as a lecturer in law at the University of Southampton. He moved to UCL in 1986 and rose to become vice-dean of the law faculty before he joined Cambridge as professor of land economy in 1991.

UCL, like academia as a whole, has much changed over the years, he says.

"When I entered higher education, every department had its eccentric who was unproductive. Now everybody is much more driven.

"The atmosphere has changed, in some ways for the better. The research assessment exercise has promoted a significant uplift in quality, but it's now (reached the point) where the costs of running it - in terms of indirect costs and people's time - risk exceeding the benefits.

"In some ways, the change is for the worse. Academic salaries have fallen, and that is a national disgrace because it exploits people who are dedicated to their work."

But Grant will not take UCL down the pay liberalisation route of Imperial.

He says: "I share the concerns about the disparities that arise when upper scales rise and the lower end does not. But I am not going to be able to do anything adequate about that until we get some sensible money into higher education."

Tim Wilson
University of Hertfordshire

This week, the University of Hertfordshire celebrates two new starts - the reign of a new vice-chancellor and the opening of a £120 million campus.

Tim Wilson, who took over from Neil Buxton at the university's helm this week, says: "Significant government capital funding is no longer available.

If universities are to provide staff and students with the best facilities - the facilities they deserve - it is necessary for universities to take their financial welfare into their own hands. That was why we went down the private finance initiative route."

Universities are likely to take a close interest in the de Havilland project, which provides academic and facilities and student accommodation.

Things have started well. The campus was completed on budget and on time - in less than two years after the first sod was cut. "We managed it in a very rigorous way," Wilson says. He says the university's finances are "relatively stable" and that Hertfordshire remains in the black.

The new campus houses 4,000 of the university's 22,000 students in the business school, the faculty of humanities and education, several large lecture theatres and a 24-hour learning resource centre. It was funded by a £7 million funding council grant and £53 million raised from the sale of estates.

The £60 million PFI part is a state-of-the-art sports centre, which members of the public can join for a montly fee of £39, and 1,600 student rooms, which are rented out for £80 a week. Local interest in the sports facilities surprised the university - the three-year membership target was met in a month.

The university will use the income generated to pay back £210 million over 30 years to construction company Carillion (which was backed by the Royal Bank of Scotland and a securities float). After 30 years, the buildings will become the university's. In the meantime, owner Carillion is responsible for their maintenance, heating and upkeep.

"We lose the risk of maintaining the property," Wilson explains. "It's their risk, because if the buildings don't reach the standard required, they forfeit their non-availability charge. It means they build something well-maintained, energy-efficient and of high quality."

Wilson, a mathematician by training, worked in manufacturing before reentering academia in operational research. He joined Hatfield Polytechnic in 1991 and became pro vice-chancellor the following year, when the institution became a university. In 1996, he began working on the de Havilland project. He has also spent three decades involved in UK national-level rugby union.

He is planning another PFI project to house 1,400 students and is preparing to refurbish the other main campus site, College Lane. The College Lane work will be done without a PFI. "I am hesitant to do academic facilities.

PFIs work best with a sure revenue scheme," Wilson says.

Earlier this year, Hertfordshire began a restructuring programme, closing two campuses and rejigging its course portfolio. A total of 100 jobs - 50 academic - were lost, but there were no compulsory redundancies.

Les Ebdon
University of Luton

The past five years have been turbulent for the University of Luton.

Sweeping changes to its portfolio in 2001, which included the axeing of many traditional courses such as English and history, resulted in big redundancies, a 10 per cent drop in student recruitment and claims of mismanagement.

Dai John retired this year, a few months shy of the end of his contract in arguably one of the toughest vice-chancellorships in the UK. But his successor, Les Ebdon, is undeterred. "I've always had my eye on Luton," he says. "This university delivers on things I believe in."

Ebdon, who grew up on a corporation estate in nearby Hemel Hempstead, says higher education transformed his life. After taking a degree and PhD in chemistry at Imperial College London, he lectured around the world during his 30 years at Plymouth Polytechnic. He later became deputy vice-chancellor of Plymouth University.

"University education moved me into a different world. If I can give something back, I would be delighted. Luton takes people who never thought they could get into university and transforms their lives."

Ebdon is determined that Luton celebrate its successes rather than dwell on its difficult past. "The publicity has been damaging for staff morale. But this is a fresh page. I'm new and the issues are well in the past. I'm going to all departments as I have tried to meet everyone. I'm listening and I'm hearing. There is a committed staff here. They are proud to be in this university because it delivers."

He says the changes were necessary, adding: "I'm grateful that that's been done and is out of the way. Extravagant change is very difficult to achieve at any university."

Education secretary Charles Clarke recently described Luton as "bloody brilliant" on the basis of a newspaper league table that put it top of the new universities for teaching quality. He said Luton had a great record for going out and finding students and bringing them through.

But Ebdon believes that Luton still has plenty to do. At Plymouth, Ebdon was part of one of the widest partnerships between further education and higher education, but Luton has few links to local colleges.

"We've got to build the relationship in the early stages, to raise aspirations," he says. "We will be building a network of foundation degrees in further education colleges so people can progress to the university."

Ebdon is in the minority of vice-chancellors who support the government's 50 per cent participation target. The decline of the manufacturing industry in Luton and the shift of such work abroad reinforces Ebdon's conviction that the UK's future is in a knowledge-based economy that requires ever more graduates.

That is why he rejects the notion that Luton should be a teaching-only institution. "Our kind of student deserves to be taught in an environment where the curriculum and the teaching are instructed by research. I'm not going to pretend that this university can be strong in everything. We will focus on excellence in teaching and supporting regional needs. But both have to be underpinned by applied research."

Ebdon also opposes a rise in tuition fees - because he thinks it will put off potential students and because he fears that the increased income will be offset against funding council grants. He has urged the government to raise the repayment threshold to the national average wage to send out a clear signal that university education enhances earnings.

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