On the right Royal road to real success

January 19, 1996

De Montfort University's v-c wants the former polytechnic to become like a medieval cathedral, a large employer, a patron of the arts and repository of knowledge and scholarship. Simon Targett reports.

De Montfort is a big university with even bigger ideas. Once dubbed "the fastest-growing university in western Europe", it is now on a crusade to construct what vice chancellor Kenneth Barker calls "a real royal road", allowing students to travel "from sub-degree to post-doctoral level" without leaving the campus.

More than this, according to Professor Barker, De Montfort University, known also as DMU, wants to become: "The equivalent of the medieval cathedral: the largest employer, a patron of the arts, and the repository of knowledge and scholarship."

It is all a long way from the late 1980s when, according to Professor Barker, the university was "technically insolvent". Back then, DMU was Leicester Polytechnic, with 8,500 students located on a run-down campus. Today, although Professor Barker says "we haven't got as much high-quality accommodation as we would wish", he can point to a multi-million pound award-winning engineering building opened by the Queen two years ago and progress on a Pounds 6.2 million extension to the library.

Even over the last year, DMU has taken huge strides. Total income has risen by 33 per cent, from Pounds 74.2 million in 1994 to Pounds 99.2 million in 1995. Student numbers have risen from 18,000 to around 28,000. And more are being wooed. In the past couple of months, the university has announced a range of new courses - including one called "golf and leisure management" - intending to become "the university of maximum choice". To teach these extra students, the academic staff now totals around 1,800, up from 1,200 in 1994.

How have they done it? Partly, it is through the acquisition of neighbouring colleges and the development of local and international franchises. DMU is now located in four centres; Leicester, Milton Keynes, Lincoln and Bedford.

There are also 21 UK-based franchise colleges where around 1,000 students study for part of a DMU course. And there are 15 international institutions - mainly in Malaysia, South Africa and Holland - where foreign students can study near home before transferring to England.

These partnerships have created new income streams. The accounts published late last year show that Higher Education Funding Council for England funding has risen by over 60 per cent in a year, from Pounds 29.5 million in 1993/94 to Pounds 48.1 million in 1994/95. With the acquisition of the largely FE-oriented Lincoln base, DMU has taken on some 3,200 FE students and the grant from the Further Education Funding Council has risen from less than half a million to Pounds 5.7 million in one year. However, DMU executives do not appear to have been trawling international waters for hundreds of new students. The university claims just 400 international students while income from overseas students has only risen by Pounds 600,000 since 1993.

DMU's success is also attributable to its business management structure. Great powers are invested in Professor Barker, vice chancellor-cum-chief executive, already the sixth-highest paid university administrator when he last year saw his pay packet rise by 10.2 per cent to Pounds 118,000.

He is guided by a board which includes business bigwigs like the Bank of England's deputy governor Howard Davies. But if Professor Barker needs to appoint someone quickly, he does not need to go through the rigmarole of tediously slow, if democratic, committees. "If I need to check with my board, I can do so in two hours," he says.

But DMU has not enjoyed an uninterrupted rise to prominence. Soon after it became a university in 1992, the name "De Montfort" caused controversy among the local Jewish community, who objected to the link with the historically anti-Semitic family. The shortage of basic books in the library as well as the rising student:staff ratio, which has shot up from 12:1 to 16:1 in five years, have also been queried.

And now there is the question of whether DMU's success can be sustained. Achieving what the administrators are calling "the wider vision" will depend on the development of an information technology infrastructure linking De Montfort's various centres. Only then will it be able to function as a truly coordinated "distributed" university. But, in the end, DMU's "medieval cathedral" vision will be but a temple to inflated ambition without an internationally recognised, quality-assured research reputation.

There are 2,700 postgraduates. But DMU wants more. "We don't want to see De Montfort doing all the ground work and then seeing the best students trotting off and going to an Oxford college," says Professor Barker. To achieve this, it has been cultivating a more traditional image. DMU, we are told, is based on the site of a college first founded over 600 years ago, and it makes reference to William the Conqueror and Winston Churchill.

More importantly, the university has been been buying up talent. In the last year, the number of academics receiving more than Pounds 50,000 has risen by 60 per cent.

Top professors have been lured from high-flying research departments, including English don Julia Briggs, a Shakespeare scholar who until last year chaired Oxford's faculty board. It has also launched a Pounds 2 million Warwick-style research fellowship programme, attracting young academics from Oxford, Cambridge, and even Ivy League universities like Princeton and Cornell. This has not solved the quality issue overnight. Last month, the Higher Education Quality Council raised questions about the standard of DMU's research degrees, noting that the system of quality assurance was not "as widely understood by staff, nor as effective, as its system for taught courses".

Professor Briggs thinks DMU does have research potential. "The best students are as good as those at Oxford," she claims. But there is a suggestion that the university looks rather better on paper than in reality. It is almost too widely distributed to have a definable identity. As well as campuses in different counties, the academics themselves are scattered around Britain. Professor Briggs is doing limited teaching this year, and can still be more easily reached in Oxford than Leicester. Even the vice chancellor commutes from Surbiton during the week.

Not a few rival v-cs would be happy to see this outsized institution trip up. With its pike-like approach to neighbouring colleges, and propensity for self-publicity DMU comes over as rather a bruiser, a bit of a bovver boy on the make. But Professor Barker is happy in the belief that DMU, if not actually "liked", has "gained some respect for what it is trying to do". And like it or not, DMU is probably as well placed as any other former polytechnic to step over the old binary line and close the gap with the traditional universities.

Facts and Figures on De Montfort University

Associate and Franchise Colleges Bedford College Charles Keene College, Leicester Milton Keynes College Boston College Tresham Institute of F&HE, Kettering Broxtowe College of F&HE Melton Mowbray College North Birmingham College Henley College, Coventry

North Oxfordshire College, Banbury South Nottinghamshire College of F&HE South Fields College, Leicester Burton-upon-Trent Technical College Hinckley College North Warwickshire College, Nuneaton Sutton Coldfield College of FE Solihull College of Technology Handsworth College, Birmingham Loughborough College

Peterborough Regional College Wigston College of FE, Leicester International Franchise Partnerships France: Universite de Savoie Germany: Johannes Gutenburg University Fachhochschule Furtwangen Holland: Hogeschool, Eindhoven

Hogeschool, West Brabant Tilburg Academy Hong Kong: City University Indonesia: Yayasan Kesejahterran Sarjana Malaysia: Equator Academy of Art Penang Arts Centre Institute of Technology, Mara Emile Woolf College, Kuala Lumpur Twintech College, Kuala Lumpur Poland: Politechnika Gdanska South Africa: Centre for Management Studies

Income Pounds 000s

1994/95 1993/94

(a) Funding council grants HFECE 48,193 29,576 FEFC 5,713 406 (b) Academic fees and support grants Home & EU students 22,771 29,608 Overseas students 2,371 1,756 Other 2,739 1,520 (c) Research grants and contracts 4,446 3,855 (d) Other operating income 11,930 6,657 (e) Endowment income and interest receivable 1,053 891 Total 99,216 74,269 Expenditure Pounds 000s 1994/95 1993/94 Expenditure 95,385 71,398 Surplus 5,569 3,816 Student & Staff Numbers 1994/95 1993/94 Students 28,000 18,748 Staff (academic) 1,810 1,239

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