Collegiate Million+ leader seeks to tap potential and stimulate economy

May 3, 2012

For Patrick McGhee, appointed last week as chair of the Million+ group of new universities, widening participation boils down to some fundamental principles about society.

The University of East London vice-chancellor told Times Higher Education: "I really want to make sure that many more people continue to have the opportunity to go to university, to discover and realise the intellectual potential they have - but beyond that, the social potential they have, the potential as a citizen, as a contributing member of a democracy, [while recognising their] responsibility to others."

He said: "The empirical research is there: people who are graduates are much more likely to be socially responsible, to recognise the needs of others. They affect the lives of many people around them [and] can champion the cause of people who do not have a voice."

Professor McGhee went to a comprehensive on a Glasgow council estate, was the first in his family to attend university and is a graduate of the universities of Glasgow and Oxford.

Succeeding Les Ebdon, shortly to become director of fair access, as Million+ chair, Professor McGhee faces a tough task: representing the interests of post-1992 universities at a time when government policy is perceived by some to offer greater support to traditional universities and the Russell Group in particular.

Asked whether Million+ (which defines itself as a "university thinktank") needs to be more like the Russell Group to influence government policy, he said: "I don't want to get into any kind of discussions about competitiveness...in relation to the 1994 Group, the Russell Group, the University Alliance or the non-aligned universities."

Professor McGhee said that the process of developing policy should be about "getting the right arrangements for all students, no matter what their aspiration [or] what kind of institution they are most closely connected with".

In its role, he said, Million+ "is successful and that is what we will continue to be: a thinktank commissioning and carrying out research related to the higher education policy landscape".

Asked what sort of positive case he will make for new universities, he pointed out that UEL can trace its lineage to 1898 before adding: "The story is a strong one. All advanced economies have a diverse range of institutions: they are very interconnected in many cases.

"The real strength of UK higher education is [its] reach and diversity: the capacity to help businesses small and large, national and international; the capacity to help students coming in who have demonstrated exceptional strength, through to the other individuals who are rediscovering themselves."

UK higher education is "not a one-hit wonder", Professor McGhee added.

Words such as "collaboration" and "collective" recur when he talks about the sector's stance with the government ahead of the next spending review.

He said that the sector's case for continued support should focus on universities' contributions to "the creative and cultural industries...export earnings, employment, regional economies and local economic regeneration".

And he argued that any moves to restrict student numbers or to further concentrate research funding would have an impact beyond Million+.

"If the government went down the road of reducing the number of higher education places...the risk would be the government would fail to achieve its growth targets [and] social mobility agenda," Professor McGhee said.

"Similarly, if the government were to go down the road of - I won't say concentration, that's already happening, let's say 'hyper-concentration' - one of the risks would be that areas of outstanding research excellence, however measured, would be at risk."

john.morgan@tsleducation.com.

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