Reforming leader softens approach

But Sussex v-c still plans to sharpen research and broaden courses, says Melanie Newman

March 27, 2008

When Michael Farthing joined the University of Glasgow's medical school as executive dean, a university publication likened his proposals for reform to "Blairite modernisation".

Five years later, he is at the helm of the University of Sussex, and one academic has used the same term to describe his plans for reforms there. The academic, who asked not to be named, accused Professor Farthing of wanting to abandon the institution's arts-focused, left-wing ethos.

The vice-chancellor has announced Sussex's second major restructure in five years. He wants the university to offer a new portfolio of degree courses, notably in business and international security, and to refocus its research in key "target areas" under broader, cross-disciplinary themes.

The plans were met with a protest rally of 100 staff and students, and the launch of a campaigning website:

The professor is not fazed by this reception: he previously managed organisational changes at St George's, University of London, of which he was principal before joining Sussex, as well as at Glasgow.

"I am not changing the ethos. I'm managing our future, rather than sitting back and hoping it will turn out all right," he said. "The current trajectory is not healthy. The issue is how much change, and in what direction."

The university is set to lose £1.4 million as a result of the Government's withdrawal of funding for equivalent and lower qualifications. Quality-related research funding is lower than last year by £600,000, and widening access funding is also down by £200,000. The number of applications has fallen, and the university performed badly in the 2007 National Student Survey.

In his latest report to senate, the vice-chancellor described the institution's position as "very challenging". He told Times Higher Education: "Sussex is not very outward looking in terms of offering what students want to be taught. We've been supply-side driven."

He added: "I want to keep a balanced portfolio of arts and humanities, social sciences, physical sciences and medicine, but the offering is too broad for our size."

There are two options for dealing with the small departments and disciplines that are not breaking even. "Remove them, or bring in and develop new courses that are financially sustainable," Professor Farthing said.

He suggested that his critics were in the minority: "Lots of people are very enthusiastic."

But opponents of the proposed changes say the vice-chancellor's concessions in a recent senate meeting suggest that he is taking their criticism seriously.

One academic said the senior team had agreed to reconsider the restructuring proposals and "seemed to take on board the complaint that the strategic plan failed to really build on what is distinctive about Sussex".

The academic added: "At the same time, there was a general endorsement by senate of the overall aims of the plan. The meeting seemed to open the way for a real engagement between the vice-chancellor, faculty and students about the future of the university."


Michael Farthing's academic background is in medical science - he is a gastroenterologist who still sees the odd patient - but he insists that he has an appreciation of the arts that goes beyond the superficial.

He is an aspiring playwright, and he has always encouraged medical students to read and visit theatres. He maintains that literature enhances their understanding and empathy and helps them retain their social perspectives. His mother was an actress and his son is an artist.

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