Restyling pays off at Southampton Solent

January 4, 2008

Risk-taking vice-chancellor's unorthodox course ideas garner £2 million surplus, writes Melanie Newman.

On hearing about one of vice-chancellor Van Gore's ideas, a senior academic at Southampton Solent University said it made her want to vomit.

While it may not be unusual for staff to disagree strongly with decisions made by their managers, or to express their disagreement in strong terms, what is less usual is that the source of the anecdote is Professor Gore himself.

"She didn't like the idea of us doing hairdressing," the vice-chancellor told The Times Higher , explaining that he had proposed a new course in fashion styling. Stylists select clothes, do models' make-up and hair, and set up photo shoots for magazines and advertising agencies.

"Market research didn't like it either," Professor Gore said. "They didn't know what styling was. The whole thing was very iffy. We thought that if we got 25 students we might stick with it. We have 87, without advertising."

The academic is now a convert, he added.

The university's finance department is also presumably sighing with relief. The governors had agreed that the university could go up to £1.9 million into deficit to pay for four new courses: fashion styling, sports science, popular music performance and television and video production.

It ended the last financial year with a £2 million surplus. In 2006, the university saw a 15 per cent dip in student applications; in 2007, applications jumped by 25 per cent.

"Around half of the increase was due to the new courses," Professor Gore said.

At the time of the new courses' planning and design, Roger Brown was still vice-chancellor; Professor Gore took up the post last August. It is safe to say, however, that Professor Gore, then deputy vice-chancellor, was a driving force behind the changes. When he was appointed, many assumed the university's governors were after a safe pair of hands, as internal appointments to vice-chancellor are unusual. But, according to Professor Gore, nothing could be further from the truth.

"I told them at the interview that I was an unsafe pair of hands," he said. "I want to take risks. We have to do something bold if we are to be competitive in five years' time. We have to do something special and different."

The professor's interpretation of "special and different" frequently seems to involve shocking his colleagues. His most recent plan was to acquire a defunct nightclub, which would have provided a venue for students on the popular music degree.

"Finance was horrified," he said. "But the pro vice-chancellor for external development loved the idea. However, in the end it didn't stack up commercially."

Like many newer universities, Southampton Solent is seeking to concentrate on satisfying employer needs. But unlike many rivals, it is planning a large-scale move to flexible learning with the aim of attracting more adult and part-time students.

All of the university's systems, services and processes would be changed to support a flexible learning model, Professor Gore said.

The university also hopes to distinguish itself by offering unique degrees such as the fashion styling course and by focusing its Business School on the National Health Service and other large employers. "The big agenda for NHS trusts is business management and reskilling the workforce," Professor Gore said.

In future, Southampton Solent will also collaborate more closely with further education colleges. Research does not really figure on the agenda. "The research assessment exercise is an irrelevance," Professor Gore said. "We are reflecting on what we mean by research. We want to concentrate on advanced scholarship that recognises professional practice. I call it 'really useful knowledge'."

Not all staff are happy with this focus, he admitted. The changes of the past two years have resulted in 57 voluntary redundancies and three compulsory ones.

No one from the local branch of the University and College Union was available to speak to The Times Higher , but Professor Gore hinted at their unhappiness.

When he learnt that he had been appointed vice-chancellor, he said, his second daughter quipped: "Goodbye Trotsky, hello Stalin."

What would the union make of a comment like that? "I would hope that they have a sense of humour," he said.

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