MRC news 'has not knocked us off course'

February 18, 2005

King's College London may have lost out on a major research deal, but new principal Rick Trainor is determined not to be pessimistic.

For months, King's has been pitched against University College London in the battle for a ground-breaking merger with the Medical Research Council's National Institute for Medical Research. Insiders suggest that the two universities were neck and neck on the final straight. But on Friday the MRC announced that UCL had won.

Such a blow might have caused others to waver, particularly given Professor Trainor's risky strategy of investing heavily in chemical biology to boost the college's chances of scooping the contract.

But this week, Professor Trainor refused to concede that it had been a difficult few days for him. "It's disappointing, but the key point for me is that we have many areas of great academic strength at King's, and we are on an upward trajectory that has not been knocked off course by the NIMR decision," he said.

He added that bidding for the contract had focused the college's academic plans, which aim to develop its science profile in general.

Undeterred by the MRC's snub, the college is bidding to the council for two major research centres, one focusing on neurodegenerative disease and the other on asthma.

King's scientists, still smarting from the closure of their chemistry department, are doubtless relieved by Professor Trainor's commitment to science, a stance they may not have expected from this rather mild-mannered historian. But a glance at his career shows a series of bold moves, not least that from Greenwich University to King's that made him the first vice-chancellor to go directly from a new to an old university.

Last week, he used his first official oration as principal to add to the calls for the £3,000 cap on tuition fees to be lifted. "Otherwise in due course the current minority of voices urging Britain's leading universities to privatise themselves will become a majority influence," he told the audience.

It is easy to see why this university leader would harbour concerns about institutions going it alone, potentially diminishing their wider social responsibilities. One of his recent historical writings - a 2003 essay on the social impact of British universities since 1850 - points to Scottish institutions, rather than Oxbridge, as being centres of "dynamism" and "vitality" in the 19th century.

Take this passage: "North of the Border the four universities (St Andrews, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh) - all founded before 1600 - featured religious tolerance, close connections with regional elites, a broad academic curriculum and a mixing of working and middle-class students still rare at Oxbridge."

He has a keen interest in industrial change and the role of urban elites, including universities, in fostering that change.

"The question I have sought to answer in my historical work is what held society together during the Industrial Revolution," he said. In answering this question, he has become one of a group of historians to put the middle and upper classes back into British history.

He is the son of an American businessman and he was educated at Brown and Princeton universities. In 1979, he went to Glasgow University after leaving Oxford University, where he had been a Rhodes scholar. At Glasgow, he later became a professor and then vice-principal. In 2000, after 21 years at Glasgow, Professor Trainor became vice-chancellor of Greenwich.

He has a keen historical eye for early signs of technology transfer and interaction with industry. Again, the 2003 essay finds old UK universities wanting. In "marked contrast" to the products of early polytechnics "relatively few graduates of any British university before 1914 found jobs either in commerce or industry", he writes.

The essay also notes the importance of King's, which was established in 1831 - around the same time as UCL and Durham University - in enlarging higher education. Previously, Oxford and Cambridge, catering for Anglicans with a classical education, had been the only two universities.

When he moved to King's, Professor Trainor crossed the old binary line.

While he traversed the Atlantic successfully more than 30 years ago, this one may be trickier to navigate.

"My views on higher education policy at a national level have not changed with that move," he said.

He is as keen to pursue access initiatives at King's as he was at Greenwich; is as committed to student support as he has always been (he wrote the influential 2003 report that advocates the establishment of one-stop shops for student support services); keen to ensure that ethnic minorities and women have access to the top jobs (he left behind a rather female-dominated senior management at Greenwich); and keen on industry links and technology transfer.

Doubtless, as far as Professor Trainor is concerned, the NIMR decision is already history. This resilient and reforming principal will be considering the challenges ahead as he tries to realise his vision of creating a genuinely inclusive but also internationally competitive research institution.

As he told his staff last week: "We have the potential, and the tools, to move yet higher if we avoid any hint of complacency, if we remain alive to the inevitability of constructive change."

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