Part-time Romantic seeks fine balance

September 9, 2005

There can't be many vice-chancellors as well placed as Drummond Bone to hear what students think about top-up fees. The head of Liverpool University has returned to the academic chalk-face - the lecture hall and seminar room.

Over the past year, Professor Bone has found time to teach undergraduate courses on the Romantic poet Byron.

But if the task of juggling teaching and running a university was difficult before, managing Professor Bone's diary in the months to come is set to become tougher still.

Professor Bone has replaced Sir Ivor Crewe, his counterpart at Essex University, as president of the vice-chancellors' club Universities UK.

He assumes the presidency amid murmurings of discontent among vice-chancellors and at a time when the uneasy consensus that existed when the Higher Education Bill was moving through Parliament looks more fragile still.

Seeking to defuse any tension at next week's UUK annual conference, Professor Bone stresses that there will be no "bullying", no arm-twisting or prodding of vice-chancellors to sing from the same political hymn sheet.

"I don't think we should get too hung up on the sector speaking with a single voice, which was the cause of the trouble with the issue of fees," he said. "We have to acknowledge that the sector is very diverse, and properly diverse - a wide range of institutions, serving a wide range of student needs."

It is clear that Professor Bone has no intention of trying to referee policy disputes within the sector or attempting to reconcile vice-chancellors from new, old or Sixties universities.

"Any organisation has to change and develop and I'm not in any way a conservative about that. UUK will change and develop," he said.

"I don't think we have to try to bully people into saying the same thing.

The Confederation of British Industry doesn't do it, after all "There is a huge benefit in having a single organisation that can offer help in a wide range of fields efficiently and that would be enormously costly for individual institutions or groups of institutions to provide. To lose that would be a great shame."

Professor Bone attended a state school in Ayr and took his undergraduate degree at Glasgow University, studying French, history and philosophy before settling on English.

He then studied at Balliol College, Oxford, and began to attract a reputation as a Byronist.

"It's been difficult to escape the man ever since. But I have to say that he doesn't owe me much. Because he is so popular around the world, he has got me tickets to travel," Professor Bone said.

And travel at speed, too, as Professor Bone is the owner of a Maserati Barchetta - far from the typical vice-chancellor's Jag, let alone a bicycle or the bus.

The car may hint at Byronic flair, but Professor Bone describes himself as a "practically minded diplomat".

He took his first lecturing post at Warwick University in 1972 and later became academic editor of the Byron Journal .

But in the 1980s he returned to Glasgow, serving first as dean of arts in 1991 and vice-principal in 1995.

Then came a brief spell as principal of Royal Holloway, University of London - a move that came at a time when Professor Bone was facing the decision of whether to return to teaching or continue on the management path.

In 2002, he was appointed to the top job at Liverpool University.

"In Glasgow I had got used to working in a university that had a considerable impact on the life of the city and the economy of the city and I really enjoyed that - it was the European City of Culture at the time," he said.

"I did miss that a little bit at Royal Holloway - it didn't have the same impact on its region as a big civic would have."

But he also missed teaching, and the move to Liverpool offered him the chance to return to the lecture hall, even though it was in the post of vice-chancellor. "Rather nicely, the English department at Liverpool asked me back to do some teaching, which I said yes to," Professor Bone said.

"Their Byronist had retired and I think they thought 'there's one here on the books' and so I jumped at the chance.

"Research is very difficult, although I was in the last research assessment exercise and my last book, The Cambridge Companion to Byron , which was an edited volume, was published in 2004. It keeps things ticking over.

"But I do miss it. If I did not do any research I would feel somewhat of a fraud."

So, are tuition fees too high - or should they rise beyond the £3,000 cap?

"There's no question if you add the £3,000 fee to the block grant, it isn't enough to balance the books," Professor Bone said.

He adds that 2009-10, when Parliament will review the cap, is some way down the track. "This might sound a bit evasive, but I want to see what happens in 2006 before I commit myself to saying we should risk asking students for a greater contribution."

Professor Bone said: "I have a suspicion that although there will be a lot of worry before people settle down and understand what is going on with fees, I don't think there will be quite so much of a revolution as some may think."

But before MPs are asked to think again about tuition fees, Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, will conduct his comprehensive spending review, which will weigh up which public services merit more or less funding from the Treasury.

It is no surprise then that when asked "who in Government is worth talking to", Professor Bone replied: "The Treasury is always worth talking to."

Intriguingly, Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, was clearly not at the forefront of his mind.

But he is also conscious that higher education dropped off the political agenda after the Bill that opened the door to fees reached the statute book.

"There's maybe a pause in government policy on higher education, and that offers an open window for the sector to develop a policy agenda.

"One of the main challenges for the sector is to persuade the country that higher education is not some kind of add-on to education or the economy - that higher education is essential to a healthy society and a thriving economy."

paul.hill@thes.co.uk

I GRADUATED FROM  Glasgow University

MY FIRST JOB WAS lecturer at Warwick University

MY MAIN CHALLENGE  is fitting it all in - there are not enough hours in the day

WHAT I HATE MOST are ideology, inflexibility and intolerance.

IN TEN YEARS I will be 68 and hoping that I will be 78 ten years after that

MY FAVOURITE JOKE  I have a pathological inability to remember jokes

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