New UWE captain charts old course under fresh colours

Youthful vice-chancellor hopes he can win over his predecessor's critics, writes Melanie Newman.

January 17, 2008

Incoming vice-chancellors are usually keen to represent themselves as a fresh start, but the new head of the University of the West of England is particularly anxious to see the past left behind.

"We need to look to the future of the university, not the past," said Steve West, referring to his predecessor, Sir Howard Newby.

But critics of Sir Howard's controversial agenda to focus on applied research and on teaching for employability may be disappointed that while there will be a change of style there will be no change of direction.

Steve West, who was deputy vice-chancellor, will push ahead with Sir Howard's vision despite vociferous criticism from the local University and College Union.

"I was party to and helped shape the strategic plan and the reorientation of the university," he said.

In 2008 the strategy will be put into operation. "We are working with employers to identify what they want from their graduates," he said. Employers are co-designing curricula, and plans for a new campus in Swindon, designed to meet employer needs, are under way.

The number of international students will be boosted by building new relationships in India, Malaysia and Vietnam, rather than focusing on China, which Professor West called a "market in decline".

The university's research strategy is under review, he said. "There are some areas we need to disinvest in, and some we need to divert funding to, to improve knowledge exchange." Investment will be focused more on applied research, he added.

Mergers of smaller research centres are expected, and job losses have not been ruled out. "We are in a challenging environment - government funding is not keeping pace with the costs," Professor West said.

If he is more successful than Sir Howard in garnering support for the changes it may be as a result of his more emollient style. Many staff felt that Sir Howard was too autocratic; Professor West wants to be seen as the opposite kind of leader: "I've always been clear that to deliver the mission we need to engage the staff. I've been walking the floor, sending out bulletins explaining what we're doing and why. You can never have enough communication."

The tactic, combined with Professor West's youthful enthusiasm - he is 46, one of the youngest vice-chancellors in the sector - seems to be working. "I would rather be led by someone who is practical, relatively young, good at management and who understands the university from the inside than someone who was an esteemed academic of the old-fashioned variety," said Clara Greed, professor of urban planning.

Others are wondering what Professor West's background - he joined UWE as dean of the Faculty of Health and Social Care - will mean for the university. He already has plans for a new MBA and executive development programme aimed at managers and clinical leaders in the National Health Service.

Sir John Tooke's recommendation that universities take over co-ordination of postgraduate medical education from deaneries has fuelled a wider ambition. "Rather than new schools that are focused solely on medicine, I would like to see multiprofessional postgraduate institutions," Professor West said.

These would deal with postgraduate training and career progression for all healthcare practitioners, including nurses.

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