New boss ready to rattle Manchester

April 2, 2004

The preoccupation with variable tuition fees is a damaging distraction to the wider debate over the future of higher education, according to the incoming president of the newly expanded Manchester University.

Alan Gilbert, formerly head of Melbourne University, arrived in Manchester last month for the start of a seven-month "thinking period" before taking over the merged university, which will be created on October 1.

But already Professor Gilbert looks set to make waves in English higher education with an uncompromising message born of his experience of other systems around the globe.

"Universities have to change, and they don't have a lot of time," he said.

"The sense of urgency in the sector elsewhere in the world is almost terrifying - in Asia, China, South Korea - but here the higher education bill is just a sideshow. It is the microeconomics of a massive debate, and the preoccupation with detail risks the loss of a vital opportunity."

He said it was unrealistic to expect the public purse to meet universities'

funding gap. "The solution lies in mixed funding and a deregulated environment because institutions need to be free to solve their own problems," he said.

Treating all universities the same would result in uniform mediocrity, he warned. But Professor Gilbert is not an advocate of a wholly deregulated, privatised university system. "The idea that government can opt out of higher education is a foolish one, but we do need to develop much more sophisticated public-private partnerships," he said.

The Manchester experiment, as he calls it, is a "once-in-a-lifetime" chance to create a university virtually from scratch.

With the double dissolution of the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology and Manchester University just a few months away, Professor Gilbert said he was very conscious of the need to balance continuity with the opportunity to sweep away outdated practices.

"We have almost 200 years of progress here in Manchester, and I won't lose sight of that. But I have set myself the task of reinventing the comprehensive research university, and I have come to Manchester to do that radically, not cautiously."

There are two choices, he said. "We can either develop incrementally - which I would consider a failure - or we can imagine and aspire to an ideal paradigm from scratch."

As one of three vice-chancellors currently residing at Manchester University, Professor Gilbert has the luxury of stepping back for a while from the day-to-day running of a university. He is using his time to talk to colleagues and to decide how things should be in Manchester by 2015. He intends to set himself some tough targets.

The challenge is not to mimic Oxbridge or to replicate the concentrated research of Imperial College London, he said. Nor is it to emulate the social cachet of America's Ivy League.

"It is to create a new university, the equal of these in scholarly reputation and achievement, international in character and focus, like them a magnet drawing many of the world's best scholars, students and researchers into a vibrant academic community, yet unique in its engagement with the people, institutions and aspirations of England's northwest." And its management, he confidently predicted, will be exemplary.

One of Professor Gilbert's first challenges will be to persuade his board to accept his proposal to do away with all university committees - currently more than 100 - bar three: a board of governors, a senate and a central planning and resources group.

"We are aiming for coherent decision-making because universities that operate in an adaptive manner are hugely inefficient, and we must completely rethink this to live up to the vision of our preferred future," he said.

"I realise that this is highly ambitious, but I have come here to be an agent of change, and the university that will come into being on October 1 2004 is a one-off opportunity to change the essential landscape of English higher education."

alison.utley@thes.co.uk

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