Davies feels the quality on campus return

November 17, 1995

The concept of a change being as good as a rest gets a ringing endorsement from Graeme Davies, six weeks after his move from running the Higher Education Funding Council for England to become vice chancellor of Glasgow University.

Returning to a university - he was vice chancellor of Liverpool before joining the Universities Funding Council in 1991 - has reminded him of what he missed. "The collegiality of academic life is one of its great appeals. It is enormously enjoyable and stimulating to be once again interacting with individual academics."

Which is not to say that he did not enjoy his four years at Northavon House in Bristol. "It was both intellectually stimulating and very creative. I was given an unusual opportunity in 1992 when we were told, in the letter of guidance from the Secretary of State, to create a common funding system."

The challenge, as he points out, was formidable - to devise a system whose extremes were represented by the Open University, with about 130,000 part-time students, and the College of Guidance Studies, which enrols about 150 at a time.

Well aware that the dissatisfied customer is always much more likely to express feelings publicly than the happy one, he interprets the relative silence of the academic community over the current funding model as assent. "It has become part of the furniture of academic life in a very short period and the fact that there is so little debate over it leads one to the conclusion that we got it as right as we possibly could."

He argues that some of the minority who have complained might have avoided their difficulties. "More often than not they had made decisions that disadvantaged them, for example at Luton, where management effectively reduced the unit of resource for researchers by about 40 per cent. That wasn't the funding council's fault."

Just as important as the system working, he thinks, is that it should be seen to work. "Making it as open and transparent as possible means no one can say they haven't had the chance to understand the rules."

Any regrets focus on the long-running quality debate, in which the funding council was perceived as the loser. Unsurprisingly, while admitting that the wrangle was "very difficult" he doesn't see it that way, arguing: "If you read the Secretary of State's letter carefully you'll see that the principle that the process should be subject-based has been retained. I always believed that the final outcome would be some sort of joint ownership."

While going to Glasgow takes him outside the system he was directly responsible for, he sees the impact of funding-council led changes. "Compared to four years ago, it is clear that questions of quality in teaching and research are much higher up the agenda. This has led to a much greater commitment to staff development and in particular to teaching skills for new entrants."

He expects his own management style to be recognisable to anyone who served under him at Liverpool. "I don't think there will be much difference. If my approach has changed slightly it is a greater awareness of the need to look at doing things over three, four or five years rather than looking for quicker results."

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