Charging up the engines of development

October 15, 1999

Northern Ireland's two universities suffer the region's twin disadvantages of political and economic difficulties. But, as Olga Wojtas and Noel McAdam report, their v-cs promise to transform them into centres of research excellence

No university in the country would claim to be having an easy time, but Northern Ireland's two universities face particular difficulties.

In an area that has found it hard to attract major inward investment, the universities are at the heart of the province's economic development. They provide two-thirds of the research and development base, compared with less than a quarter for the United Kingdom as a whole.

But Northern Ireland has no access to initiatives such as the Joint Infrastructure Fund, and the universities' block grant for research has dropped substantially while funding has risen in every other part of the country.

There is also the ongoing problem of the "reluctant leavers", qualified entrants who have to study elsewhere because the province is hit by the English cap on student numbers.

George Bain, vice-chancellor of the Queen's University of Belfast, and Gerry McKenna, vice-chancellor of the University of Ulster, are fine-tuning their strategies for the new millennium, lobbying against the constraints and working to deflect the worst effects.

They seem set to have more neighbourly relations than did their respective predecessors, Sir Gordon Beveridge and Lord Smith, and are likely to have the chance to work together for some years.

Rumours have been rife that industrial relations guru Professor Bain, aged 60, will shortly leave for another job. "For those who hope it's true, they're going to be disappointed," he says, admitting that in an "accidental" career, Queen's is virtually the only post for which he has planned and applied. "I couldn't imagine being offered any job that would be more attractive than the one I have. I expect to retire in this job," he adds.

Professor McKenna only took up his post on October 1, but as UU's pro vice-chancellor for research, he has already helped forge a good working relationship with Queen's.

He is the first Ulster Catholic to be appointed vice-chancellor. Asked whether he has faced sectarian discrimination in his career, he comments mildly: "It's hard to say as someone who has become a vice-chancellor at 45 that I've experienced many barriers."

His appointment was based firmly on merit rather than being in any sense tokenistic. He has a distinguished research record in biomedical sciences, and a reputation for being hardworking and approachable but unafraid to take tough decisions.

"Being a local person, I have a lot of advantages in the sense that I'm aware of the cultural and social issues and constraints in Northern Ireland, and therefore I would hope that I would be able to take the university forward faster than if I were coming in cold," he says.

One of his first priorities is to redefine the university's regional role. "That includes our support for economic, social and cultural development, our interaction with the further education sector, the voluntary sector and our support for the business community," Professor McKenna says.

"It is my intention to establish a regional development office under a dean with responsibility for, among other things, consultancy, support for inward investment, the enterprise centre, which we hope to establish jointly with Queen's, and also our links with the Irish Republic."

Staff will be relieved that he sees no need for dramatic restructuring. There have already been changes over the past five years, he says, and he will continue a "very strong policy of research selectivity" that has led to greatly improved ratings in the research assessment exercise.

"I feel the RAE is enormously helpful in improving the quality of higher education research in UK universities. It's difficult to think of any other tool that has had or could have the same positive impact. Without the RAE, the system could be ossified."

Professor McKenna says that in his plans for UU, he prefers "evolution to massive sudden change".

The strategy at Queen's has been more dramatic. Professor Bain, former principal of the London Business School, who became vice-chancellor of the university 18 months ago, last year launched a controversial Pounds 25 million restructuring plan.

He believed that although the university was in good financial shape and had a good teaching record, it was not achieving its research potential.

The Queen's blueprint included investing Pounds 12 million into earmarked disciplines, and hiring more than 100 "high-calibre" academics, while simultaneously losing more than 100 academics, the bulk of whom had been deemed "research inactive".

This led to considerable adverse publicity, but Professor Bain says the strategy won overwhelming backing at academic council and senate.

"Although there was a lot of noise and a very skilfully orchestrated campaign, the noise was disproportionate, I think, to the amount of support."

Nobody was forced to take a voluntary severance offer, which was probably among the most generous in the system, he says, and there were also options of redeployment to the institute of continuing education or academic related posts.

He stresses that implementing the new vision is likely to take five to six years, with the real test coming in the RAE after next. He rejects suggestions that Queen's cannot fill the vacancies. In the past, he says, unfilled vacancies were clawed back, but he believes "a good vacancy is worth more than a bad appointment", and is urging departments not to fill posts until they find oustanding candidates, even if this means readvertising.

But he admits it is "marginally" more difficult to recruit in Northern Ireland, because of the bombs-and-bullets image, far removed from the reality of Queen's leafy south Belfast campus, and misapprehensions about Belfast's distance from other cities.

Professor McKenna says recruitment has not so far been a problem, but he fears the effect of the lack of research funds. This is compounded by the Irish Republic's recent announcement of Pounds 247 million for university research and development.

"Unlike other regions of the UK, we border a country with a very rapid rate of economic growth, a genuine tiger economy. Obviously, if we are not able to match the research infrastructure in the Republic and Great Britain, that would have a negative impact in terms of the recruitment of high-calibre academics and also their retention."

Professor Bain says Northern Ireland's fair employment laws, designed to combat discrimination, "have been defined and refined to a point of such sophistication that it probably does make more constraints on recruitment". And he believes that the legislation, alongside the cap on student numbers, is "unhelpful" when trying to widen student access.

"Oxford can afford to interview students and say, 'I like the cut of your jib, here's a two Es offer'. We can't do that. We'd be right up in the courts, because there's a strong pressure for us to rely entirely on A levels because they are 'objective'," he says.

The new political situation may allow for the fair employment laws to be interpreted and administered differently, he says. And he suggests devising a tariff for designated access places, which could be officially sanctioned, as well as increasing the overall number of student places.

Professor McKenna believes a new, devolved administration is likely to want to give young people a greater chance to study locally.

"The 'reluctant leavers' are a huge intellectual drain as well as a substantial loss of spending power to the Northern Ireland economy," he says.

"I would see it as very high on my agenda to argue the case for more university places for Northern Ireland."

UU is top of the UK league in attracting students from manual and semi-manual backgrounds, he says, but still more needs to be done to promote higher education to non-traditional groups.

"Many people from disadvantaged backgrounds have an aversion to debt and are not fully aware of the benign loan system that has been introduced," says Professor McKenna.

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