Exeter v-c: we must not duck our research duty

November 8, 2002

Complacency is endangering Exeter University's status as one of Britain's most popular universities, its new new vice-chancellor believes.

Steve Smith told The THES that he was demanding a "step change" in attitudes because Exeter was "punching well below its weight" in key areas. "The public perception of Exeter is of a top 20 university. We walk like a duck, talk like a duck, but we are not a duck.

"It makes you feel secure when you are part of an institution that is incredibly successful in undergraduate provision, among the best at graduate employability and with around 22,000 applications for 2,400 undergraduate places each year," he said.

Next year's applications are up by 25 per cent on this year. Exeter also rose 11 places in last year's research league tables, one of the best improvements across the pre-1992 university sector.

But Professor Smith said the sense of security was misguided. "I have done the analysis, and have worked out the benchmarks that tell us where we need to be compared to our rivals. When I showed staff where we are, they were shocked."

His first priority is to continue improvements in research performance. The apparently impressive improvement in the research assessment exercise masked the fact that Exeter was recovering from a 1996 low point, when it plummeted to 47th place. The changes brought it up to only 36th place, well below its comparators among the 94 Group of research-led institutions.

This is where Professor Smith's credentials as an academic's academic come in. "To be blunt, I never got into this to be a vice-chancellor," he admitted, citing his 100 research papers and 13 books in his field of international studies. But a meteoric rise into senior management, which saw him elevated from a head of department at Aberystwyth in 1999 to the vice-chancellor of Exeter this year, proved irresistible.

He will impose exacting standards on his staff. "I will be looking at everyone's research output," he said. He was concerned that the "phew factor", the sense of relief that the RAE performance has improved, could allow complacency to set in. So there will be a mix of carrots and sticks.

"We will be supporting and mentoring people, but if they are not producing, we will have to look at that. If you ask me if I'm saying my staff are lazy, the answer is 'no'. We have a good set of staff, but people get into ways of doing things that reflect the gratification of being good at teaching undergraduates, and they keep doing it.

"I'm not going to impinge on anyone's academic freedom," he said. "But academic freedom does not mean freedom to do nothing."

Professor Smith, aged 50, is something of a pioneer in providing carrots - he has set aside about 2 per cent, or £720,000, of next year's pay budget for performance-related pay.

"We are going to start with one-off performance-related payments," he said. "We will base it on appraisals but it will be open, transparent and honest. Every member of staff has a chance of an additional £1,000 payment every three years. Pay is an appallingly serious issue, and this is a tremendous change."

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