Bell change for Bradford

January 9, 1998

At first sight Colin Bell, the next vice chancellor of Bradford University, seems an unlikely choice. Professor Bell, who will succeed David Johns next August, is a social scientist and senior vice principal at Edinburgh University, an ancient, multi-faculty institution very different from Bradford's technological image.

But the man and institution have more in common than immediately appears. Bradford also has a strong emphasis on the social sciences, with one of its original departments, peace studies, still unique. Professor Bell's sociology department at Edinburgh houses the science studies unit, whose interests include the sociology of technology, controversies in modern biology, and the development and use of DNA fingerprinting. As a professor at Aston University he was in charge of its technology policy unit, and claims he learned during Aston's savage cuts of the early 1980s "how they should not be handled".

A distinguished researcher, he galvanised Edinburgh's sociology department's return to glory. It won a 5 rating in both the 1992 and 1996 research assessment exercises, but Professor Bell is particularly proud that it also won an "excellent" rating in the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council's assessment of teaching quality.

He is the founding convener of Edinburgh's teaching committee and says the university has a serious commitment to teaching, launching its own strategic review in advance of Dearing, and now planning to introduce a teaching qualification for staff. He says: "Teaching is our core business. I think students get a much better deal than they did. They never got a bad deal, but now there are no dark corners."

He has also promoted wider access, supporting special programmes such as LEAPS, the Lothians Equal Access Programme for Schools, a consortium of higher education institutions and local authorities which aims to encourage applications from under-represented groups. He hopes to see similar partnerships with Bradford's neighbours.

He is particularly aware of the problems facing ethnic minorities, having 20 years' teaching and research experience in race and ethnic relations. Yorkshire is statistically overprovided with university places, but under-recruits locally, particularly from minority populations, he says.

"If universities like Bradford don't take this seriously, who is going to? There is amazingly good work being done there, a lot in collaboration with Bradford and Ilkley Community College, which is beginning to pay real dividends in minority recruiting."

He recently edited the Edinburgh University Press title, The Sociology of Social Security, which looks at the operation and organisation of the social security system, and which is reputedly on the bookshelves of welfare reform minister Frank Field.

Professor Bell is dismayed by government moves to cut benefits. "It is not just socially divisive, but it also has a kind of incoherence. It doesn't re-energise the poor. It's not a society you're proud of that attacks the most vulnerable for comparatively trivial fiscal reasons."

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