Bournemouth targets 'the professionals'

August 31, 2007

In the two years since he joined Bournemouth University, Paul Curran has acquired a reputation as one of the most controversial vice-chancellors in the sector.

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, accused him of "rewriting the rule book" after he made new staff sign a local contract that abolished the cap on teaching time, cut holiday entitlement and removed scholarly leave. But some of the former Nasa research scientist's staff think he would prefer to tear up the rule book altogether.

"He wants to throw off the constraining history of the old polytechnic sector and move towards a 'third way'," one university insider said.

In an extensive interview with The Times Higher this week, Professor Curran spoke frankly about the need for dramatic change.

Bournemouth, he insisted, is "on the move": it is creeping up the league tables (from 69 to 62 in last week's Times Good University Guide ), it has little debt, an enviable seaside location and a good student employment record.

But there are difficulties. "When the cap in fees is removed or raised we will be in a market, and we need to be in a stronger position," he said.

Student satisfaction surveys have given the university poor scores, its research output is relatively low, and its assets are limited. "The average floor area per student is eight square meters - we have 4.5sq m. In terms of fixed assets, few are worse off," Professor Curran said.

His biggest challenge when he arrived related to teaching. His staff were spending 78 per cent of their time teaching, compared to a sector average of 40 per cent - not a good thing, despite student concerns nationally about lack of contact with their tutors.

"There isn't a straightforward correlation between the time spent teaching and how much teaching students receive," he explained. There were "overlaps" in courses, and he found there were 134 "introduction to research methods" courses.

"The university has cut that overlap - and teaching time - but it hasn't affected students," Professor Curran said. In any case, he sees quality as more important. "Students want staff engaged in research or professional practice and aware of the latest developments, rather than those who haven't practised for years."

By 2012, the university's corporate plan states that research academics will outnumber pure teaching staff. After two rounds of voluntary redundancies, about 70 academics have left and new staff have been recruited.

A "releasing research and enterprise potential" programme is encouraging remaining staff to expand their skills, and some academics have applied for research grants for the first time. The university has introduced associate professor posts to improve the academic career structure, and even references to "classrooms" have been removed to help provide a more lofty atmosphere.

But Bournemouth is not seeking to join the research elite. Oxford Brookes University is a closer role model. "Our priority is education, with research and enterprise second, and widening participation third," Professor Curran said.

The university will be "geared to the professionals". "In our case the word vocational carries the wrong message. We are offering programmes accredited by the professions," said Professor Curran, boasting of the university's "centre of excellence" in media and the National Centre for Computer Animation.

The drive to improve the university's academic standing will be underpinned over the next six years by the "most intense period of building the university has known", according to the corporate plan, although staff have noted that original references to a £100 million investment have changed to £0 million.

Money will be saved by course cuts. "Programmes not attractive to students, like electronics, will run down," added Professor Curran. "The flipside of that is that we will offer more courses that are popular. Some universities offer 35 subject areas; we have 15."

While his reforms - and in particular, the redundancies - have not endeared him to staff representatives, even his detractors accept that change has been necessary, after a long period of "unsustainable drift". "That's part of the reason why things are so difficult now", said one university insider.

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