Minor pain, major gain

July 29, 2005

After all the controversy, the shake-up at Swansea will pay substantial rewards, argues Richard Davies

The "squeezed middle" is a phrase coined by Sir Howard Newby, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, to describe the fate of pre-1992 universities outside the research elite. For these institutions, the status quo is not an option in a market-driven system.

The challenge of managing Swansea University, a Welsh variant of the squeezed middle, is worth sharing - not least because change can be turbulent.

The Higher Education Funding Council for Wales has been pursuing similar research concentration policies to Hefce. However, the rapidly changing environment also provides opportunities and, in Wales, these include European Objective 1 Funding and Welsh Assembly support for creating a vibrant knowledge economy.

Swansea was determined to adapt to this environment. Pre-1992 universities are not renowned for their pace of evolution, and readers of The Times Higher will be aware that changes at Swansea encountered resistance, particularly from the Association of University Teachers.

The story starts in October 2003, when a radical agenda was presented to council for accelerating change. This agenda included seeking external funding for large projects to enhance our research profile; merging academic departments into schools with additional strategic and operational responsibilities; streamlining governance; and switching resources from some areas (which would be phased out) to free investment for business plans in stronger research and recruiting areas.

The timing was good - Swansea had just emerged from a recruitment and funding crisis, with applications buoyant and a new sense of optimism. The university also had the advantages of a new medical school and of being at the centre of an innovative system of incubator and research and development facilities. The strategic directions agenda gave the council and external bodies the confidence to invest in growth.

There have been nearly 150 academic appointments already, with another 150 anticipated in the next 18 months. We have announced a series of major strategic projects, including the £50 million Institute for Life Science; the Richard Burton Centre for Film and Popular Culture; and research centres for aquaculture and multidisciplinary child-related research. About £30 million worth of further projects will be announced in the next few months.

But radical change is never a wholly benign process. We decided at the outset that there would be no compulsory redundancies, but there ensued three months of debate and protest during consultations over department closures and disinvestment. Staff in the areas identified were understandably outraged, and students in the affected departments persuaded the student union to reverse its initial policy of support for the strategic directions agenda. The external pressures surprised me and, at times, my office was overwhelmed with e-mails, letters and telephone calls.

Once the strategic directions agenda received the final approval of council, the turbulence on campus rapidly died away. The frenetic activity was no longer that of protest but of addressing challenging new aspirations. But about 20 staff supported by the Swansea AUT and a group of students submitted a petition to the visitor opposing the strategic directions agenda. Stories critical of the university appeared in the press, but it was often not possible to respond fully as the issues were either before the visitor or involved confidential employment matters.

I have, however, become progressively more relaxed about such publicity.

The record applications both to work and to study at Swansea suggest that observers are not readily swayed by misleading press reports. The visitor's recently published determination fully vindicated the university.

One disappointment was that, in my view, we failed to engage the powerful and vociferous chemistry lobby in genuine discussion of options despite repeated attempts. The number of core chemistry staff at Swansea was down to six, and strategic investment to rebuild a traditional department was out of the question given student demand. The issue was how we could develop and maintain a high-quality but affordable chemistry operation that could contribute fully to a multidisciplinary research environment. I believe the answer to such issues lies in regional collaboration, and we are grateful to Cardiff University for working with us on a promising solution.

The final verdict on the strategic directions agenda will be delivered in time for the 2008 research assessment exercise. I am increasingly optimistic as the objective evidence, such as research grants awarded, is beginning to confirm the subjective impression that the campus is now a place not of the usual sedate adaptation, but enjoying an unstoppable surge of activity. Quite the opposite of a squeeze.

Richard B. Davies is vice-chancellor of Swansea University.

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