Profile: Deian Hopkin, London South Bank University v-c

October 29, 2004

Leader of the revolution and all that jazz

A love of music was listed by a fifth of the country's university heads in a survey of vice-chancellors' backgrounds last month by The Times Higher .

Few, however, could claim to be professional musicians - and probably fewer still have had a quartet named after them.

But jazz piano playing is one of the more unusual distinguishing characteristics of Deian Hopkin, vice-chancellor of London South Bank University. During the 1960s, the Deian Hopkin Quartet played the music venues of Aberystwyth (where Professor Hopkin was a student and later a tutor).

The 60-year-old still regularly plays with several bands, "not least because it allows me to think out of the box of my own job; it's about improvisation," he said. From his office in south London, the sounds of Stan Getz and other jazz legends can be heard wafting from the speakers of his computer.

"Lead the revolution" were the words of the advertisement that inspired Professor Hopkin to apply three years ago for the vice-chancellorship of the then South Bank University. "Having been a historian of both French and Russian revolutions, I thought that was an opportunity for historian to become actor," he said.

Taking up the position, however, meant turning down a BBC TV series on Canada. Professor Hopkin had previously resisted the lure of a media career with ITV in the 1980s. The upper echelons of the academic world would have been a duller place for his absence, had he buckled.

But to pigeonhole him as a colourful, if maverick, vice-chancellor would be to underestimate this highly politicised and savvy operator. This month he was unveiled as the first chairman of Uniaid, the new charity that aims to ensure that financial disadvantage does not prevent students from fulfilling their potential in higher education.

According to Professor Hopkin, Uniaid will help to raise awareness of student finances as well as the fact that money is crucial to the ability of many to complete their degree courses. (The position will also, of course, raise his own profile.) "I don't think we fully understand what the financial world for students is going to be like. There's so much uncertainty... about what the fees are going to be. The economics of being a student is pretty uncertain," he said.

In many respects Professor Hopkin finds himself in something of an awkward position. As vice-chancellor of London South Bank, he will play a key role in determining the fees the institution will charge for its courses. Yet he acknowledges that much of the research into the problems of student finance and debt has emanated from his university.

Professor Hopkin could also be heard speaking at last month's Labour Party conference in Brighton.

Politics has always been a major part of his life. His mother was Labour candidate for Cardigan in 1959; the former Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell once stayed at the family home; and he knew Nye Bevan as a teenager.

Conservative leader Michael Howard grew up two streets away.

Born in Wales in 1944, Professor Hopkin did not learn English until the age of eight. He graduated with a BA in history from the University of Wales, Aberystwyth in 1965 and took up a history lectureship there the following year. He eventually became head of history in 1990, before departing to become dean of human sciences at London Guildhall University in 1992.

"I've always been interested in organising things," Professor Hopkin said, adding that he found managing a large budget "a tremendous opportunity to be creative". To allow managers at London South Bank to be similarly creative, he has devolved responsibility as much as possible and provided training.

Shortly after he arrived at Guildhall, however, it ran into serious financial difficulties. "I found that quite a cathartic experience, and it made me reflect on what you might do in an institution that needed change."

He said he never imagined becoming a vice-chancellor. "I was very late coming into (management). I didn't sign a cheque in anger until my late forties."

Acutely aware of the increasingly cut-throat market facing universities in the wake of variable top-up fees, Professor Hopkin has been quick to position London South Bank, an institution with 17,000 students and 1,700 staff, as a teaching-led university serving the needs of local communities.

"You need a university like this where it is. It's been here for 110 years -what we're doing is reasserting our historic role."

Adding "London" to the title was symbolic, he said, and underlines a refocusing on areas of strength and London South Bank's claim to be a university for the capital.

Professor Hopkin said: "Many universities don't see research as their primary task. We are deeply research-engaged, but we are not dictated by our research agenda."

Unlike other heads of new universities, Professor Hopkin has been careful not to fall into the trap of claiming the same territory as old universities. A governor of Lambeth College and co-chair of the London Higher/ Association of Colleges further and higher education partners group, he is particularly concerned with student progression routes from colleges to universities.

After 37 years in higher education, he is now adamant that he will be at London South Bank until he retires. "There's enough to keep me going here for another lifetime. This is not my retirement job. It's my job til retirement."

Even when that time comes, moving to Spain and playing golf are unlikely to be on his agenda. "It's a catastrophic mistake; the brain cells will disappear faster than the golf balls across the edge of the green. I still write and lecture and I will return to full-time academic writing at some point, no question," he said.

"The good thing about being a historian is that it's not time-limited.

Historians gain, I believe, from the experience of life."

Deian Hopkin, London South Bank University v-c

I GRADUATED FROM: University of Wales, Aberystwyth

MY FIRST JOB WAS: lecturer at University of Wales, Aberystwyth

MY MAIN CHALLENGE IS: ensuring London South Bank is regarded as the best in what it claims to do

WHAT I HATE MOST: is prejudice

IN TEN YEARS TIME I: want to be going strong

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