Class warrior or softly-softly negotiator?

November 12, 2004

Is Sir Martin Harris a class warrior or a conciliator? This is a question that all universities are mulling over: whether the new access czar will strong-arm institutions into accepting more working-class candidates, or be a gentle guiding hand as they tread the path of equal opportunities.

With critics from the Left urging tough action against elitism, and critics from the Right warning of social engineering, Sir Martin sees his role as drawing the political sting from the debate about university access.

Barely a month since he took the job of director of the Office for Fair Access, Sir Martin gave his first press conference this week and used the opportunity to underline - repeatedly - that Offa would not meddle in admissions and that he would uphold universities' autonomy.

But with a calculated nod to concerns on the Labour back benches, Sir Martin also predicted that from 2006 students from poor backgrounds will share £200 million or more in bursaries and financial aid from universities that the public purse would not otherwise provide.

Offa's task, he said, was to help and encourage institutions to identify talent from both ends of the social spectrum and to widen the pool of qualified candidates.

"I accepted the job because I thought there was a real risk that an issue on which there is high degree of consensus - namely equality of opportunity - would become a political football," Sir Martin told The Times Higher .

"I thought that I could, with my particular range of contacts, help minimise the risk of confrontation and maximise the chances of decent bursary schemes and ongoing access arrangements."

Bearing in mind that one vice-chancellor said the new Offa chief would need the hide of a rhinoceros and that the job advertisement called for candidates with "experience, resilience and toughness", did Sir Martin apply or was he headhunted?

"I was asked to apply at a stage in the process," he said, adding that he nonetheless went through the same application process as the other 30 or so candidates.

He was also quick to counter the "misinterpretation" of a speech he gave before his appointment that led to Tory accusations that he was an old Labour class warrior.

Sir Martin said his political beliefs were "far more complicated than that" - and that reference to his time at Cambridge University and the class differences he found there were intended as a "wry" aside and reflection of his youthful naivety at the time.

Sir Martin, a grammar-school boy from a Methodist family in Plymouth, went up to Queen's College, Cambridge, in 1962 - the first of his family to continue education beyond the age of 14.

"When I went to Cambridge as an 18-year-old, a very naive 18-year-old, I became aware of social differences that I hadn't been aware of before," he said.

"It's a matter of fact. But that was 40 years ago. I do not - categorically, do not - draw any negative conclusions about Cambridge from that. It gave me immense opportunities."

Sir Martin is a linguist who took his doctorate at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London before starting his academic career at Leicester University.

In 1974 he moved to Salford University, taking up the post of senior lecturer in French linguistics, becoming professor of Romance linguistics then dean of social sciences and arts and finally pro vice-chancellor of the university from 1981.

Sir Martin took up his first vice-chancellorship in 1987 at Essex University, moving to the top post at Manchester University in 1992.

During his term there, he carried out a number of national policy reviews - from library provision to careers and postgraduate education - and chaired the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals (CVCP) between 1997 and 1999, a period that coincided with delicate negotiations on Scottish and Welsh devolution.

But he cites his experience at Manchester in laying the groundwork for the merger of the university and the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology - which has created the UK's largest conventional university - as giving the clearest indication of his management style and approach.

"It's by persuasion, by pointing out the advantages of one course of action over another, by working as collegially with former colleagues as possible," he said. "But, as my two years as chair of the CVCP show, I'm not a pushover. That wouldn't be right, and it's not what Parliament wanted."

Sir Martin is also quick to emphasise his personal commitment to widening participation in higher education. "This is not just a spin or getting through a difficult press conference, by God, I really believe all that," he said. "There is going to be an income stream that will be going to poor students that the taxpayer wasn't going to provide."

So what of the murmurings of discontent from Oxford University in recent months about social engineering and Government meddling that will push the university towards privatisation?

"As far as I can see, nobody in authority for the universities of Oxford or Cambridge has said anything of the sort," Sir Martin said. "All I can say is that one or two people may have thought someone was going to be appointed who would seek to override the autonomy of universities. That has not happened."

Sir Martin does not expect universities to come up with similar access schemes and bursary programmes beyond the minimum £300 laid down in the Higher Education Act.

Indeed, he indicated that he would be "happy" to see universities target some financial aid at students who were on the margins of qualifying for full support. "I think some universities will say they will give the £300, but we will also put a significant amount of investment into helping students whose family incomes are between £3,000 and £5,000 above the cut-off point."

Can he foresee any circumstances when he will exercise Offa's powers to fine universities up to £500,000? "I can't think of any circumstances. Universities want to charge variable fees, therefore they want to reach agreement," he said.

Profile: Sir Martin Harris, Director, Office for Fair Access

I graduated from Queen's College, Cambridge.

MY FIRST JOB WAS at Leicester University as a lecturer in French linguistics.

MY MAIN CHALLENGE IS to ensure that equal opportunity becomes once again an issue of consensus rather than controversy.

WHAT I HATE MOST is deliberate misrepresentation.

IN TEN YEARS I will be properly retired, or so my wife hopes.

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