First impressions in the hot seat

'Positive' London Met v-c praises commitment of staff and students. Rebecca Attwood reports

February 18, 2010

It has been forced to shed scores of staff and hand back tens of millions of pounds in public funding, but the new vice-chancellor of the sector's most troubled university has said his first impression of the institution has been "hugely positive".

Speaking before his debut as a Times Higher Education columnist, Malcolm Gillies, who joined London Metropolitan University last month, said he had been "heartened" by the commitment and dedication of its staff and students during the period of uncertainty.

According to the University and College Union, London Met has made about 60 compulsory and 100 voluntary redundancies in recent months, and many more posts remain unfilled.

Professor Gillies said: "While we've had all these bad news stories, and while there has been attention on a particular aspect of the funding that went to London Met through the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the university has been going on with its business - and doing it extraordinarily well - at a time of losing staff and very substantial amounts of money."

At the same time, he acknowledged that "huge challenges" remain.

These include rebuilding the university's board of governors - all those who were members of the board before 31 August 2008 are to stand down by the end of August - and making sure it has a strong strategy for the future.

A strategy document will go out to consultation in March and a master plan will be in place before the general election, Professor Gillies said. This was particularly important "in the bad times that all institutions know they are heading into".

Investigations of the role played by the senior staff mentioned in two reports into the funding crisis, which was caused by inaccurate data on student completions, will be carried out "as quickly as possible, in the interests of the staff and the institution", he said.

Meanwhile, the vice-chancellor added that he was trying to meet as many of the university's 30,000 students and 2,000 staff as possible.

Column formation

Professor Gillies' column, which starts next month, will focus on four themes. The first, "values and commitments", will cover big-picture issues, such as how universities can meet the UK's learning needs.

The second will consider the "hot topic" of university governance, which raises a "series of issues" about competing interests, values and motivations.

Third, he said his experience as vice-chancellor of two universities in the heart of London - he stepped down from City University London last year - had given him an "interesting vantage point" on higher education in a metropolis of 8 million people.

Finally, he said he wanted to focus on research, particularly in non-science areas that are not being prioritised by the Government.

"This issue of how much research excellence, impact and direct demonstration of value to voters and industry should be influencing the mix of what we do is becoming critical," he added.

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