Lights, camera, Salford: v-c set for MediaCity challenge

Martin Hall is excited by the university's role in the 'media hub' of the North. Rebecca Attwood writes

September 10, 2009

There is an experimental laboratory at the University of Salford that is so acoustically deadened that all you can hear once inside is the workings of your internal organs. Visitors are advised to enter unaccompanied to avoid embarrassment. By contrast, in a room next door, a whisper sounds as loud as an orchestra.

Meanwhile, those who take a tour of the university's advanced virtual reconstruction of the Black Country - used to model local and regional development - may be wise to pop air sickness pills beforehand because the experience is akin to taking a ride in a madly swooping helicopter.

It is Salford's advances in fields such as visualisation, virtual reality and acoustics, and its tradition of music, media and performance that make it the perfect partner for MediaCity, the future "media hub" of the North, believes Martin Hall, the university's new vice-chancellor.

The BBC will decant five of its departments to the complex by 2011. Earlier this year, Salford became its second anchor tenant, with plans to create an innovative higher education complex at the heart of the development.

"MediaCity is a big challenge for us and for me personally," admits Professor Hall, who took up the vice-chancellorship this summer after 25 years of working in South African higher education.

"What we've got is the premises and an alarmingly short period of time until opening," he said.

MediaCity is under construction in Salford Quays and will be home to 2,500 BBC staff by 2011.

"It will be powered by the 'cappuccino effect' - the ability of smart people to get together over a decent cup of coffee and share ideas," Professor Hall said.

The cost of the building is covered, but the vice-chancellor will need to ensure that the project brings in fresh income to cover ongoing costs. This is likely to come from new postgraduate courses in continuing professional development, to be offered in association with the BBC and other industry partners, he said.

As a hub for new-media industries, MediaCity will create "all sorts of research and development possibilities - I am pretty confident about it", Professor Hall said.

"We have been very conservative in our projections for the next couple of years, so this isn't some wild set of expectations about income," he said. "But of course, any new project is a risk."

'Good financial management'

Under his predecessor, Michael Harloe, Salford completed a programme of voluntary redundancies that delivered savings of £12.5 million. That was not an exercise to pay for MediaCity, Professor Hall insisted, but "an exercise in good financial management. No sensible organisation has staffing costs in excess of 60 per cent of its overall running costs."

He is now so confident about the university's financial health that Salford is "in a position where we do not have to contemplate redundancy, if all things remain equal, over the next three to five years".

In fact, the university is about to make a major investment in posts focused on MediaCity and other areas where Professor Hall believes the university's strengths lie.

Salford "stands alongside and distinct from" its neighbours, the University of Manchester and Manchester Metropolitan University, he argued. One example is its relationship with industry - it claims to have invented the sandwich course, for example.

He has also identified a series of themes for the future. As well as its media work, Salford plans to concentrate on health, energy and the built environment, plus human rights and social justice issues. The last is a new area of focus, and explains the university's decision to appoint Irene Khan, secretary-general of Amnesty International, as chancellor.

Inequality, he said, is a problem that unites South Africa and the UK. While the situation is many times worse in the former, "Britain, with the US, is the most unequal country in the developed world in terms of income". Two of the communities adjacent to the university are among the most deprived in the country.

"I am a strong believer that you gain international recognition from the quality of your local engagement," Professor Hall said.

"Sometimes, people in university leadership think they have to make a choice between being a local or an international university. I think that is a false choice."

During his time at the University of Cape Town, where he rose to the position of deputy vice-chancellor, Professor Hall saw the university's demographic change dramatically, so that black students made up the majority of the campus body.

He describes widening participation as "close to my heart", but believes university fees work against efforts to deliver it.

"Study after study has shown us that low-income families are much more debt-averse than middle and upper-class ones," he said.

There are other troublesome consequences, too.

"If a young adult graduating from university does so with £40,000 worth of loan debt, they are going to defer their entry into the housing market and any other form of consumer debt," he said.

He is "alarmed" by the "apparent emerging consensus" between the two major political parties that the answer lies in the level of the fee cap, and thinks serious consideration should be given to the idea of a graduate tax.

"People aren't as averse to taxation - it is a different psychological barrier. It can be progressive: you can be taxed more proportionate to your subsequent earnings."

He also believes that mission groups should not take up positions on the issue.

"To try to close ranks on this and say 'this is our position so we can lobby Parliament on it' closes down the debate," he added.

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