Thames Valley to be a model Leitch institution, vows v-c

February 21, 2008

Thames Valley, Sussex and Salford have all confirmed restructuring plans. Times Higher Education reports on the changes.

Thames Valley University has announced ambitious plans to become the UK's foremost "Leitch university".

The once-failing institution has been given a £6.7 million strategic development grant by the Higher Education Funding Council for England and is aiming to become the country's leading university for employer engagement under the agenda laid out in Lord Leitch's review of the UK's future skills needs.

In 1998, Thames Valley was the first university in the country to be branded failing after a special audit by the Quality Assurance Agency. More than 100 staff quit, and student recruitment slumped.

But ten years on, and five years after the institution was given a clean bill of health, its vice-chancellor is determined to see the institution enter a confident new phase.

Peter John, 50, who took up his post seven months ago, was brought in to fashion a new strategic vision for the university that will see it through to 2013.

In September, he launched a university-wide consultation, and more than 1,400 staff attended presentations he held around the university, which has campuses in Ealing, Reading, Slough and Brentford. What emerged, Professor John said, was the need for a new sense of purpose.

"We have unusual advantages," he said, citing the university's multi-sector status.

Measured as full-time equivalents, Thames Valley has 12,000 higher education students and 6,000 in further education. Some 75 per cent of students are over 25, and 65 percent of students are part time.

"We can lead on employer engagement because we don't have an academic/vocational divide problem: we are a university that does both well," Professor John said.

Historically, the university has had three big recruiters: the London College of Music, the London School of Hospitality and the health and nurse training that was inherited from the former Queen Charlotte's College.

The vice-chancellor said that he sees the creative industries, enterprise and entrepreneurship - backed by the university's chancellor, Lord Bilimoria, founder of Cobra Beer - as a future growth area.

Professor John, whose background is in education, said some staff have feared that Thames Valley would become a "teaching-only" institution, with just 75 staff entered into the 2008 research assessment exercise. But he has assured them that "every teaching act at some level should be informed by scholarship".

As an institution carrying out the Government's widening participation agenda, he said, margins are "very tight". At the end of the financial year the university recorded a deficit of £6.5million.

"If we are going to mission-shift, we need to be in the best possible shape to do it ... We must start to grow surpluses, (and) that will start this year."

There will be a series of internal reviews of each central service department, and the university has been running an institution-wide voluntary redundancy scheme.

Professor John said that there would also be investment in staff to support the university's new mission, and about £60 million would be spent on improving the university's estate, including plans to expand higher education provision in Reading.

The university has just held a conference on its future, attended by David Eastwood, the chief executive of Hefce, and Chris Banks, chairman of the Learning and Skills Council. The message given, Professor John said, was that successful education providers would have to do things differently.

He cites the motto of the Universities Secretary: "As John Denham said to me recently, all British universities should aspire to be world-class at what they do best."

rebecca.attwood@tsleducation.com

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