Ashworth the player seeks fresh pitch

December 15, 1995

The THES called him "The vice chancellor who personified the new entrepreneurial spirit of higher education in the 1980s". But the latter part of this decade may find John Ashworth out of higher education following last week's decision by the London School of Economics to offer its directorship to Sir John Bourn, at present auditor-general.

The decision appears to end a year of uncertainty over the directorship, held by Dr Ashworth, 57, since 1990. He was appointed initially for six years, ending next September, with an option of renewal for a further four years.

He said: "The school, as is normal, set up a search committee to look for a director. I said a year ago that it was neither seemly nor appropriate to apply for my own job, but equally I made it plain that if they wanted to talk, I would be prepared to talk to them. My colleagues, knowing my views on a variety of issues such as the funding of higher education, decided that they did not want to approach me, so I have not been approached and events are taking their course."

Perhaps it was asking for trouble to appoint a scientist - Dr Ashworth set up the biology department at Essex and was chief scientific adviser under the Callaghan and Thatcher governments - to a leading social science institution.

He disagrees: "I don't think it's a matter of discipline - more of whether by training and attitude one has a critical mind or a syncretic mind. There are an awful lot of people at LSE who are extremely critical, who enjoy standing on the touchline and commenting on play. I've always been a player."

Dr Ashworth, whose wife Auriol Stevens is editor of The THES, has been a consistent supporter of charging students tuition fees. "The quality of higher education cannot be maintained at the levels the Government is prepared to pay for it." Looking at this year's Budget, and the further cuts imposed on the system, he says: "There is no quicker way to make yourself unpopular than to say 'I told you so' but I can't help feeling it."

Looking back, he feels he might have taken more time and care explaining his views to LSE colleagues: "I rather assumed that as social scientists, including some of the best in the world, they would appreciate more rapidly the nature of the challenge we were facing. It was very difficult to persuade them that the school had to change".

His priority in the remaining months at LSE will be the school's fundraising efforts- an area he considers one of the successes of his time in charge.

"I've been very pleased with the development of the LSE Foundation and Enterprise LSE." The foundation has raised Pounds 7 million in its first 18 months and research income is up 140 per cent in five years.

But he remains concerned about core functions. Dr Ashworth points out that the cumulative cut in the unit of resource over a decade is very close to the 40 per cent imposed at one go on Salford University, where he was vice chancellor from 1981 to 1990, by the 1981 University Grants Committee cuts.

He argues that accepting cumulative attrition, rather than the change in funding balance implied by his unsuccessful attempt in 1993 to persuade the school to adopt top-up fees, has been very damaging.

So where next? He says he is not enthused by the thought of another higher education job, but enjoys his directorships of Granada and Sainsbury. "It's an intriguing world and I'd like to get to know it better."

The following correction has since been published:

Headline - Term of office;Letter Date - 22 December 1995 Source - The Times Higher Education Supplement Page - 10 I must ask you to bring to the attention of your readers a factual inaccuracy in Huw Richards's report "Ashworth the player seeks fresh pitch" (THES, December 15). Mr Richards stated that Dr Ashworth was appointed for six years "with an option of renewal for a further four years". This is not the case. John Ashworth's appointment is for a fixed term of six years and contains no such option. Christine Challis, LSE

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