Can former NHS man heal Hefce?

Former health service chief executive is set to take up 'poisoned chalice'. John Gill reports

November 27, 2008

A vice-chancellor with experience as a high-level civil servant is to be the next chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) - a job one sector leader described this week as a "poisoned chalice".

Sir Alan Langlands, vice-chancellor and principal of the University of Dundee, headed the National Health Service in England between 1994 and 2000.

His appointment follows a series of notable departures from Hefce.

David Eastwood, the current chief executive, announced that he was stepping down in June, less than three years after he joined the council on a six-year contract. He will join the University of Birmingham as vice-chancellor in April next year, when Sir Alan will take over at Hefce.

Professor Eastwood's decision to leave prematurely followed the departure of Hefce's chairman after six years in the job.

David Young, who started in 2001, was replaced by Tim Melville-Ross in January.

Hefce's director for research, innovation and skills, Rama Thirunamachandran, also resigned in March this year. He left to become deputy vice-chancellor at Keele University.

Liz Beaty, director for teaching and learning, was another to depart when she joined the University of Cumbria in February.

Alice Hynes, chief executive of GuildHE, said: "I think (the chief executive post) is a poisoned chalice, and we are glad it is someone from within the sector who has taken it up. It is a really difficult job, and it will be an even more difficult job in the future."

Sir Alan has declined to give interviews before he takes up the post, but he was hailed by Mr Melville-Ross as "a strategic leader with immense experience of developing public policy".

"He has an impressive track record of achievement and trust acknowledged at the highest levels of Government and by peers in the public sector, higher education and the private sector," he said.

Sir Alan is a science graduate of the University of Glasgow and a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He also holds a number of honorary fellowships.

He is chairman of UK Biobank, a joint charity venture of the Wellcome Trust and the Medical Research Council set up to oversee a major genetic epidemiology study.

In a statement, he says: "The funding council's aims of enhancing excellence in education and research while widening participation and knowledge transfer have never been more important, and I look forward to building on Hefce's many successes."

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