The new head of the Higher Education Academy has vowed to convince vice-chancellors of the value of his organisation by making it more "efficient" and "focused" and by producing strong evidence of the impact of its work on the student experience.
In his first interview in his new post, Craig Mahoney also said he wanted to see every member of staff teaching in UK higher education qualified as a teacher, and the HEA taking on an international role.
Professor Mahoney, an Australian sports psychologist who has lived in the UK for 24 years, has been deputy vice-chancellor with responsibility for learning and teaching at Northumbria University since 2007.
Speaking to Times Higher Education at the HEA's annual conference last week, he said that those who understood and supported the HEA were the staff who worked with it and the second tier of university management.
Vice-chancellors, however, "could not articulate confidently as a collective group the value of the HEA and its principal objectives". In the current tough financial climate, they were also questioning why they should pay it subscriptions.
In 2008, a review of the HEA by Oakleigh Consulting found that some vice-chancellors felt the HEA had "yet to demonstrate the case" for its continued existence. Unfortunately, Professor Mahoney said, this situation had not changed.
"I will work to ensure that vice-chancellors know me, know what the HEA does, and have their chance to criticise me and the HEA about what they think we are not doing. We need a tangible set of objectives that they can judge us against, (one) that says, 'this is value for money'." This would include more "quantifiable" and "harder" targets, he said.
Professor Mahoney is an adviser to the football world governing body Fifa on psychology in officiating and a former semi-professional squash player. He said that as someone with an "incredibly strong passion" for learning and teaching, he was a natural supporter of the HEA. But in future, the organisation - which faces losing a third of its core funding by 2012-13 - needs "to do things differently and better".
"People have said to me, 'Ah, you are going to the academy. What does it do?' When someone inside higher education asks that question, there is an image problem."
Asked about the government's future commitment to the organisation, Professor Mahoney said he was "not into crystal-ball gazing". But he did note that David Willetts, the universities minister, wanted to see an improvement in the quality of the student experience, which he said was the HEA's mission.
He said he hoped to win government backing for his plan to see every member of university teaching staff - certainly every new member of staff - hold a qualification.
"My observation when I first became qualified 30-odd years ago was that people who taught without an academic qualification that schooled them with the psychology, the philosophy, the sociology of learning and teaching were not as good teachers as those who had it."
Satisfaction for students
The National Student Survey is currently under review. Professor Mahoney said the NSS was only one measure of the student experience and was not "the be-all and end-all".
"It is unfortunate that the NSS has been given as much credibility through newspaper league tables as it has," he added.
"Even Times Higher Education's student experience survey asks probably a wider range of more relevant questions around the sorts of things we should all be looking at."
When he first came to the UK, Professor Mahoney said he "found it quite bizarre" that UK students received free higher education. When students started to pay fees, they began to ask questions "that they should always have been asking".
He said he believed that universities were now serving students far better than they did 24 years ago, but the sector had not "sold that correctly to the observers - the government particularly, and the general population".
However, he admitted that class sizes had grown and that assessment regimes were "variable". Describing his approach to teaching and learning as "fairly eclectic", he said: "I want everything to be better."
Professor Mahoney wants the HEA to "find a way of engaging on an international front", providing a service and opportunities that international universities would want to "buy into", literally.
India and China are already interested in the HEA's professional standards framework, he said. "If we can get that right, we have something that I believe is highly saleable overseas in accrediting teaching in higher education."
A graduate of the Tasmanian College of Advanced Education (now the University of Tasmania), Professor Mahoney holds a master's from the University of Birmingham and a PhD from Queen's University Belfast.
He described himself as "incredibly committed", "extremely passionate" and "very direct" - the last being a trait he admitted some do not like. "My directness is not intended to offend but rather to get to the point quickly, and I like people to be direct back."
He aims to run a "very transparent" organisation, he said.
"I'm not interested in corridor conversations. I want things on the table, and I want people to share their thinking. I don't have all the answers and I don't profess to, and I'm willing to look at any options."