Up for the challenge of a sticky wicket

July 4, 2003

Oxford's next v-c is an energetic all-rounder who has won kudos in the worlds of cricket, industry and academe. Claire Sanders and Richard Thomson report.

John Hood is a cricketing man. He becomes very intense when he talks about the game. Hood, who has been nominated as the next vice-chancellor of Oxford University, is said to work 16 hours a day, but he still found time in between being a captain of industry and vice-chancellor of Auckland University to chair a review of New Zealand cricket in the 1990s.

"We need to make cricket fun for children in schools," he says.

"What they need is a bat and a ball and lots of enthusiasm."

Once this grassroots excitement has been nurtured, Hood says that big clubs must be financed so they can choose the best players and promote them.

"I was reading the accounts of UK county cricket clubs - you have a lot (of them) with little money between them," he says. "In Australia, they have five or six well-funded state teams which can virtually field teams of international standing alone."

The analogy with higher education is irresistible. Hood has long argued in his native New Zealand for greater stratification and differentiation between universities.

With 31,502 total enrolments, Auckland is New Zealand's biggest higher education institution and has by far the largest research budget. Last year, it won research contracts worth NZ$165 million (£59 million).

Hood believes that governments must fund research-intensive universities properly if they are to compete internationally. "We must be able to attract researchers of international standing. Once we lose the ability to do this, it is very hard to catch up," he says.

His views sit well with the government white paper on higher education, which advocates more stratification of universities with far greater research concentration.

Hood is quick to point out that this does not lead to ossification. "Take film, media and television studies," he says. "This is one of the most successful and fastest-growing departments at Auckland. A community of scholars, fully interacting, will see new academic areas flourish - new interdisciplinary approaches take off."

At Auckland, half the research budget comes from the government - the rest from industry and private sources. "This contrasts with universities in the US where typically 80-90 per cent of the research budget comes from government. This funds curiosity-driven research," Hood says. "At Auckland, we have had to go out and find money."

A decade ago, Auckland set up Uniservices Limited to manage the university's intellectual property and its contract research. It operates alongside the research office, which manages the government funds.

Uniservices earned £20 million last year.

Hood believes that universities have to be at the centre of the knowledge economy and that they are crucial to economic survival. In a speech at Melbourne University in 2001, Hood spelt out his homeland's economic failures. "Over the four decades to the late 1990s, the New Zealand economy expanded by a meagre 60 per cent. The average expansion of Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries was about 150 per cent," he says. He argues that New Zealand has not invested enough in research and development.

Soon after his appointment to Auckland, when many in business were claiming a crisis of confidence in the newly elected Labour-Alliance government, Hood gathered together a group of young business leaders. The result was the first "Catching the Knowledge Wave" conference in 2001, co-hosted by Hood and prime minister Helen Clark.

Hood's impact was obvious to John Taylor, director of the Knowledge Wave Trust. "He has a tremendous, almost magnetic, ability to draw around him people of dynamism to bring New Zealand forwards," Taylor says. The second Knowledge Wave conference led to the founding of a Leadership Institute, housed in Auckland's business school.

"It has been enormously exciting bringing leaders of all ages from all areas together," Hood says. "We have established new and vital networks."

Before his appointment at Auckland, Hood, an engineer by background, held senior posts at one of New Zealand's largest companies - the Fletcher Challenge corporation.

John Hart, a former coach of New Zealand's All Blacks rugby team who worked with Hood at the corporation, pays tribute to his one-time colleague's efforts. "He has done a huge amount here in getting government attitudes to change and getting government alongside business," he says. "Just very quietly, working behind the scenes."

At Auckland, Hood is credited with turning around the university's performance. Tim Hazledine, branch president of the Association of University Staff, says: "He got financial and management systems in place fairly quickly, and he's been a pretty energetic and able lobbyist and procurer of resources."

Fears that Hood's corporate background would affect the way he ran the university proved unfounded. "He quickly bought into the culture of teaching and research," Hazledine says. "He hasn't reversed the trend to managerialism but nor has he imposed it."

Hood is not scared to take a stand on issues, according to Hart. "He's no patsy. He won't be pushed around," he says.

Hood will have a tough challenge ahead, though. One Australian vice-chancellor noted this week that Oxbridge universities are notoriously difficult to manage. Hart says: "It's a unitary state here at Auckland.

Oxford is a federation of 30-odd colleges. It'll be interesting."

But it is acknowledged that Hood has the energy required. Taylor notes: "He doesn't like to waste an unforgiving minute." As a former Rhodes scholar, Hood is secretary for the New Zealand Rhodes Trust, as he is for the Knowledge Wave Trust and the New Zealand Vice-Chancellors' Committee. He is a member of Melbourne University's governing body (a position he will keep while at Oxford) as well as chair of Universitas 21, an international association of research-led universities.

And he is credited with reviving the fortunes of New Zealand cricket in the 1990s. Sadly, he sees English cricket as a tougher case to crack, far more complex a problem. "It needs a lot of work," he says.

Also on the Kiwi team

Hood will not walk alone when he joins the ranks of UK university chiefs.

• A good friend of many years is New Zealander Graeme Davies, vice-chancellor of Glasgow, soon to move to the University of London. Davies, like Hood, studied engineering at Auckland

• New Zealander Malcolm Grant, pro vice-chancellor of Cambridge University, has just been named the next provost of University College London

• Michael Kelly, also originally from New Zealand, has just been appointed UK executive director of the Cambridge-MIT Institute

• Gerald Pillay, executive head of the School of Liberal Arts at the University of Otago, has been appointed rector and chief executive of Liverpool Hope University College from September.

But rather like English football managers, the UK is an importer of university chiefs. There are no Brits heading for New Zealand universities.

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