Bain adopts simple solution

April 17, 1998

An historic peace deal and the long-awaited go-ahead for a new campus promise exciting times for Ulster's higher and futher education.

At Queen's University, Belfast, a new broom is sweeping all before it. Canadian George Bain has certainly made his mark in just three months. The joke that he is the "bane" of some people's lives has already become a cliche.

From the first day, the 59-year-old courted controversy. In his inaugural address to staff, he said Queen's probably had the most complex structure of any university in the United Kingdom.

"The chain of command is too long," he said. "We have too many committees, with overlapping terms of reference and no one taking responsibility for decisions reached."

He announced that academics were to be subject to on-going assessment involving colleagues, subordinates and students, and under-performers would be encouraged to take early retirement.

Acutely aware of Queen's reputation as a bastion of Unionism, he warned there was a danger of the university being weighed down by the baggage of history and paralysed by the past. But he vowed to fight fair employment cases - QUB is facing 60 - where the university is in the right.

Many were surprised at Professor Bain's decision to take up the challenges at Queen's. But he has strong local roots. His maternal grandmother ran a famous city pub, Pat's Bar, in the docks area for 28 years from 1890 to 1918.

Professor Bain has also discovered that the relative from whom he takes his middle name, Sayers, belonged to the family who owns some of the land Queen's now stands on. His mother came from Belfast and his father, a carpenter with Canadian Pacific Railways, who arrived looking for work during the 1929 recession, spent his childhood in Scotland.

"My mum saw herself as middle-class and my dad - nine years her junior - came from a strong working-class family," said Professor Bain. "She always used to say to me 'once you take off your jacket to do a job, no one will thank you for it'."

Professor Bain studied economics and political science at the University of Manitoba, where he taught in the early 1960s before going to Oxford University, where he took a doctorate in industrial relations.

His prolific books and papers on the subject have given him an international reputation and he has arbitrated in many disputes. He has been appointed to a wide range of government bodies but is probably best known as chairman of the Low Pay Commission.

Yet his working-class origins still show, at least at times. He believes many working-class children lose out in higher and further education where the 11-plus selection procedure and A levels are seen as the prime indicators of intellectual ability.

But while he has said he wants to build links with schools and colleges, he insists there will be no "dumbing down" of degrees. Professor Bain advocates excellence rather than elitism. His experiences at Manchester, Warwick and, in more recent times, as principal of the London Business School, will undoubtedly help him weather a few negative headlines and walk the tightrope between the cliques and factions embedded in any institution.

Soon after he took over at Queen's, a Belfast Sunday newspaper rang seeking confirmation that he had spent several thousand pounds on a facelift. He retorted: "If I had, do you think I would look like this?" He is to trim the specialties at Queen's, which submitted 47 research units for assessment last time round. "We are trying to do too many things," he said.

Symbolically, his first meeting at Queen's was with the student union executive, and he wants to move out of the vice chancellor's luxury residence.

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