Barnsley lad not a 'leather sofa' type

August 20, 2004

Derby's new vice-chancellor, John Coyne, sees the value in being true to one's roots, Tony Tysome reports.

John Coyne is concerned that the deep leather Chesterfield sofas in his sumptuous office may not exactly give the best first impression.

"I am not really a leather sofa clubby type of chap," he insists, explaining that the furniture is a legacy from his predecessor as vice-chancellor of Derby University, Roger Waterhouse. To soften the image of gentleman's club elitism, he's replaced the rich, dark and dusty bookcases with more breezy, blonde-wood shelves, which give the room a lighter, more open, touch.

But perhaps he protests too much.

Asked to pick his favourite book on the shelves, he pulls out a well-used 1900 edition of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations , bought at a second-hand bookstall when he was an industrial economics undergraduate at Nottingham University.

Smith, regarded by many as the founder of the free market, has clearly had a significant influence on Professor Coyne's outlook on higher education, and on his career in the sector.

In his climb up the higher education executive ladder - from senior lecturer and warden at Nottingham to founding head of Leicester Business School and then pro vice-chancellor at De Montfort University four years ago - Professor Coyne has seen his fair share of tension and says he has learnt lessons that sit well with Smith's free-market tenets.

At De Montfort, he took responsibility for the controversial closure of the university's Milton Keynes campus as part of a rationalisation of sites. He says he was "not emotionally immune" to the impact of that, especially as ten years earlier he had been presented to the Queen at the campus's opening ceremony.

"What I have learnt is that everything you do has to be driven by the quality of the student experience. And, second, you must try to gather the best information you can and analytically and decisively act on that and not stand back from tough decisions. In some respects, analytically, the decision to close Milton Keynes was not difficult. But to implement it was technically and emotionally challenging," he says.

Such lessons may stand Professor Coyne in good stead at Derby, where he now faces a similar task of managing a radical reduction in campuses. Over the next few years, the plan is to sell off six of Derby's eight sites and invest about £50 million in new buildings on the university's two main sites that straddle the A38 dual carriageway.

Derby must work hard to clarify its position in the market, which will mean being "true to its roots" and building on provision that is already strong and that serves the region, he says. This may not mean job losses, but Professor Coyne can give no guarantees.

"If offering the level of service required means taking some tough decisions that result in some staff leaving the university, then you cannot stand back from that. But those decisions have to be made for the right reasons and handled with humanity," he says.

Another challenge is preparing Derby for the "quantum shift" in the market that will be brought about through the introduction of top-up fees.

Although Derby's governing body has yet to decide whether full fees will be charged for all courses, the university has begun a marketing campaign designed to sell itself to prospective fee-payers.

"The market can be terribly unforgiving on occasion. Changes can take place that leave you with no alternative but to respond and adapt," he says.

One of the reasons Professor Coyne feels so at home at Derby is that, he says, it embraces fundamental educational values of inclusion, responsiveness, flexibility and social responsibility, which he believes should be at the core of any university.

As a "Barnsley lad" from a working-class background, and the first in his family to go to university, he feels passionately about the importance of this mission. He says he still has a photograph of a primary school play he took part in that has a special significance.

"I would say that seven out of the ten people in that photo went on to hold senior positions in education. We may have been working-class kids in a South Yorkshire village, but we all believed that we could become whatever we wanted to be.

"You have to have that belief that education is an enlarging experience," he says.

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