Birmingham review

April 6, 2007

Radical plans at the university will see 19 schools replaced by five colleges led by mini v-cs, says Tony Tysome.

Birmingham University claims to be leading a revolution in the way institutions are managed, with plans to reorganise itself into five colleges each headed by a "mini vice-chancellor".

It claims the move will result in a culture change, providing new research and teaching opportunities for staff.

An external agency will be appointed to search for candidates to take charge of the colleges on permanent contracts if the university's council gives the go-ahead to the proposals this week.

Under recommendations that have so far had a mixed response from the staff and students involved in a five-month consultation, the 19 academic schools will be dissolved and their disciplines placed within a five-college structure from August 2008.

But the most radical and controversial proposal relates to the level of power and autonomy that will be delegated to the new heads, who will manage devolved budgets and will sit on an executive board with the vice-chancellor.

Speculation among some staff that the positions could go to non-academic industry heads - even "brewery managers" - have been dismissed by Jonathan Nicholls, Birmingham's registrar.

He told The Times Higher : "We will be looking for very distinguished people with strong research backgrounds and a good track record in academic management.

"We see a potential for each of them to eventually become vice-chancellors.

They will almost be trainee vice-chancellors."

Dr Nicholls said the reorganisation and the autonomy given to the college heads was designed to provide greater flexibility in how the university was run and to create new opportunities for cross-disciplinary work.

"Some universities suffer from set disciplinary boundaries. Under the new arrangements we will see an opportunity to create new research centres that straddle the various schools. It should give academics more opportunities to realise their full potential," he said.

"We are at the beginning of a new trend. Other universities are making similar moves, but we would say that we are setting a trend ."

A paper circulated to members of the University and College Union at Birmingham warns: "It appears to be proposed that colleges will be managed by the head of college and a college executive board, composed entirely of those appointed by the head of college.

"This would give enormous unfettered power to heads of colleges.

"In the absence of strong checks and balances... colleges could become personal empires or fiefdoms."

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