McClure to retire early rather than be 'lame duck'

The SFC's outgoing chief executive tells Olga Wojtas not to read too much into his early departure

April 24, 2008

Roger McClure, chief executive of the Scottish Funding Council for the past six years, retires at the end of this month.

His planned retirement date was 2010, and the unexpected announcement in mid-March of his early departure set the rumour mill working overtime. There has been much speculation about tensions between Mr McClure and the SFC's chairman, businessman John McClelland.

"I don't think you should read too much into these rumours," Mr McClure said. "If there were tensions, I don't think that's unhealthy. (We tackle) big issues and big issues need to be properly examined." Opposing arguments are essential to good decision-making, he added.

Mr McClure said there was a simple explanation for the timing of his departure: he and Mr McClelland realised that he was due to leave in the middle of the next corporate plan period, so they decided that it would be sensible for him to retire early so as to enable his successor to lead the plan's development.

In an e-mail to SFC staff, he said: "Having decided to make the break, I really did not wish to be for several months a 'lame duck' chief executive or a poor imitation of Banquo's ghost, and so we agreed that I would retire sooner rather than later."

Laurence Howells, currently director of learning policy and strategy, has just been appointed interim chief executive. The post is particularly demanding because it covers both higher and further education institutions.

"I think someone in my position should be given a five-year fixed-term contract," Mr McClure said. "You need renewal all the time, new energy coming in. Any chief executive does things early on, and if you think of strategies as children, parents are not noted for wanting to strangle their children. If these children deserve to be strangled, there's the risk that you don't objectively review (them)."

But he is not yet ready for full-time gardening.

"I will be looking for opportunities, particularly at board level. Quite apart from energy and undiminished enthusiasm, I think I have a huge store of knowledge that, probably uniquely, covers both sectors."

Mr McClure arguably had unparalleled expertise when he arrived at the SFC: he had already served as the first financial adviser to the University Grants Committee and as director of finance at the Polytechnics and Colleges Funding Council, and was the architect of the Further Education Funding Council's funding methodology. He had also seen the world from an institution's viewpoint, having been pro rector of the former London Institute.

He dismisses fears that the Scottish Government is set to abolish the SFC in a bonfire of the quangos, which is one option floated by the task force reviewing higher education. Mr McClure said the task force set the extremes for discussion.

The SFC's future was assured, he said, with the Scottish Agricultural College expected to come under its remit shortly. Universities Scotland is not anxious to take over funding, and the only other feasible option would be the Civil Service, he said.

Global competitiveness means institutions must be nimble, and for this, they need autonomy to respond to their situation. "We have been trying to strengthen institutions' governance and remove any scintilla of doubt that the management of an individual institution is 100 per cent entirely responsible for what goes on in it and must take all the key decisions locally. It must not in any sense feel that the funding council is sitting on its shoulder and will take the difficult decisions for it."

Mr McClure was initially sceptical when heads of universities - which one SFC official described as "money-seeking missiles" - became enthusiastic about grassroots research-pooling initiatives that could attract SFC support. But pooling, which now ranges from physics and chemistry to brain imaging and economics, is undoubtedly increasing Scotland's attraction to international researchers.

The SFC support for pooling was partly in response to concerns that the Higher Education Funding Council for England's focus on research in the so-called Golden Triangle could lead to an exodus of key Scottish teams. "We wanted to turn Scotland into an equal alternative to Oxbridge and London, and researchers had to feel that there was a high-ranking and large community that was well resourced," Mr McClure said.

"What we've been told repeatedly - and either every scientist in the discipline has been given coaching to say the right things over a sustained period of hours, even after consuming good quantities of good wine, or else it is true - is that the people they are attracting are of far higher calibre than universities have been able to attract (individually). We are able to exploit our size in a way that England just can't."

To illustrate the strength and value of Scottish higher education, Mr McClure has made a calculation, only partly tongue in cheek, based on Times Higher Education-QS's World University Rankings, that shows world-class universities per 5 million people, the population of Scotland. Scotland comes out top with a score of 5, Switzerland is next with 3.3, England is in fourth place with 2.5, and Germany lags behind with 0.7.

olga.wojtas@tsleducation.com.

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