Hefce chief promises to support institutional autonomy

But he says sector must develop knowledge and skills beyond academe. Melanie Newman reports

April 2, 2009

The incoming chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England has promised to respect universities' autonomy - but he emphasised their accountability to the taxpayer.

In a speech due to be delivered on his first day in office at Hefce's annual conference on 1 April in London, Sir Alan Langlands, former vice-chancellor of the University of Dundee, said: "As Hefce chief executive, I will always respect the autonomy of universities and colleges. Institutional autonomy should remain at the heart of our system - it is key to the success and resilience of higher education, but of course it comes with clear responsibilities and accountabilities."

Professor Langlands quoted from British Universities - Past and Present by Robert Anderson, professor of modern history at the University of Edinburgh.

Professor Anderson wrote that "there must be more to university education than the pursuit of individual ambition or economic utility", and that making this ideal co-exist with vocational training and research driven by external needs was a challenge.

"Well, of course it is," Professor Langlands said. "But I believe that it is possible to combine the fundamental truths of education and research with the knowledge and skills required to help the professions, businesses and public services innovate and prosper, and to ensure that the research undertaken in universities continues to have relevance and impact."

Professor Langlands, former chief executive of the National Health Service in England, warned that in 15 years of negotiating with the Government, he had "never known a less propitious time to be arguing for more public investment".

He said success would depend on being able to prove that public investment in higher education was being used to optimum effect.

He referred to a new Leadership, Governance and Management Fund, which he said would support "distinctiveness, new business models and new approaches to partnership, working with employers, professional bodies and regional development agencies".

Professor Langlands said he would make Hefce's statutory responsibilities, including its duty to ensure the proper assessment of university standards, a personal priority.

Hefce has established a quality assurance sub-committee, headed by Colin Riordan, vice-chancellor of the University of Essex.

Professor Langlands also spoke of supporting the research community, singling out postgraduate research students. "It is a bit of an indictment that the trend line for postgraduate research students has been relatively flat over the past ten years, a period of unprecedented investment in the research base," he said.

melanie.newman@tsleducation.com.

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