Mixed views on Howard's end

July 20, 2007

Sir Howard Newby's early exit from UWE - and his legacy - has divided opinion among staff and students, Melanie Newman writes.

During his five years in charge of the £6 billion annual higher education budget, Sir Howard Newby set out a clear strategic vision for England's universities.

As chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England between 2001 and 2006, he encouraged universities to find their niches and to focus on their strengths instead of trying to spread themselves too thinly.

But as vice-chancellor of the University of the West of England, his attempts to practise what he preached ran into difficulties in some quarters. Things came to a head this week in an extraordinary attack from the local branch of the lecturers union, reflecting the difficult job that dozens of university heads face in trying to restructure and reposition for the nascent higher education market.

Following the news that Sir Howard, after just 16 months in charge, will be departing next year to become vice-chancellor of Liverpool University, the University and College Union, which boasts a 40 per cent membership among teaching staff at UWE, issued a statement describing his tenure as "disruptive for students and staff, disastrous for the morale of staff and damaging to the reputation of the university".

"We hope the new vice-chancellor will aim to preserve and extend quality teaching and research at the university, improve staff morale and pursue a transparent, collegial and inclusive style of management," the union said.

This week, the university confirmed that although Sir Howard does not join Liverpool until September 2008, the current deputy vice-chancellor, Steven West, will take over the "day-to-day" running of UWE for the start of term this September.

It all began so well. Accepting the UWE job, Sir Howard spoke of enormous opportunities: "UWE is well positioned to become a distinctive new kind of university for the 21st century, achieving excellence in learning and teaching, knowledge transfer and the extension of educational opportunities to all who can benefit."

But reforms designed to increase vocational courses, to improve the institution's links with businesses and to focus the university on "knowledge transfer" instead of pure research have met with some resistance.

Although the university dismissed it as "unrepresentative" and flawed by "loaded questions", a poll last month of 180 staff by the UCU found that about 50 were thinking of leaving the institution - some claiming that the university was jeopardising its very "status as a university".

Nils Lindahl-Elliot left his job as senior lecturer in the School of Cultural Studies in April this year. "UWE is in the midst of a huge transformation. Howard Newby is intent on changing the university into an institution devoted to knowledge transfer. As far as I'm concerned this discourse ultimately threatens UWE's status as a university," he said, adding that he had quit over changes to the university's intellectual property policy, which he said limited his rights over his work.

A spokesman for UWE said the university's IP policy had improved, with half of IP going to the individual rather than a third.

Tensions are particularly high in the School of Cultural Studies, following Sir Howard's decision to move it from the Faculty of Languages, Humanities and Social Sciences into a new Faculty of Creative Arts as part of a wider faculty reorganisation.

One disgruntled academic in the school said: "The move has not enhanced the research culture. People protested and there was a lot of upset but no discussion. Changes like this can mean a lot to academics who have a professional investment in a subject." He said conference funding had been cut, teaching hours were being extended by two hours in the autumn, and "it now looks like teaching loads will continue to be increased in the years to come".

A last-minute change to the name of a course from "journalism studies" to just "journalism" raised fears about a shift from offering theoretical courses to providing more vocational ones.

Besides Dr Lindahl-Elliot, five other academics from the school have resigned in the past year. The departing staff include Michael Chanan, a film-maker and professor of cultural studies, who left for a chair at Roehampton University, and Stuart Allan, professor of journalism. In his resignation letter, leaked to The Times Higher , Professor Chanan said: "You simply don't get such a big exit of staff in one year unless something is going badly wrong."

The faculty reorganisation had been mismanaged, he said. "In the words of one of our administrative staff, it isn't being managed at all."

melanie.newman@thes.co.uk

THE VIEW FROM UWE MANAGEMENT AND STUDENTS

John Rushforth, deputy vice-chancellor of UWE, said: "The vision and strategy established by Sir Howard has the full support of governors, the senior management team, the student union and the overwhelming majority of university staff.

"During his tenure, student retention, graduate employment, student satisfaction and research income have all improved. Twelve colleges have joined the UWE Federation, connections with employers have increased and a clutch of our students have won prizes in national competitions.

"Far from being disruptive and damaging, the changes have enhanced the student experience, research, knowledge exchange, and widening participation. The university has a strong platform upon which to build and deliver future success.

"The governors remain fully committed to the strategy and policies established by Sir Howard and will recruit a new vice-chancellor who can demonstrate a strong commitment to their fulfilment."

A spokesman for the university added that staff turnover, consistent with the previous year, is "very low at 8 per cent per annum and believed to be one of the lowest among universities for academic staff."

He said that the UCU represented about 1,000 of the university's 3,000 full time teaching staff. "A third of staff have been directly involved designing and leading the programme of change. This hasn't been a managerial change from on high."

The spokesman added that research income was the highest it had ever been, "and we continue to win significant research contracts. Preparations for the research assessment exercise are well advanced and we have a well-defined research strategy."

Relations between faculties and employers have been improved through a Research Business and Innovation (RBI) scheme.

Dom Passfield, student representative president, said: "The student union believe the changes that Sir Howard Newby has implemented at UWE have been to the benefit of the students. The student union and the university will continue to work together to improve the student experience at UWE."

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