The profile of a TV Crewe

April 5, 1996

"Oh yeah, Ivor Crewe - so he's the vice chancellor as well, is he?" A taxi pulling away from Essex University may not be the fairest sample, but most vice chancellors are lucky to be recognised in their university towns as vice chancellors - let alone as anything else.

But Professor Crewe's recognition almost certainly owes far more to years as one of the BBC's main election pundits than to his career in academia. He is the only head of institution to have been caricatured by the Guardian's political cartoonist Steve Bell: "Twice, both of them distinctly unflattering", says Professor Crewe, who adds that the signed original of one is on his office wall.

Political scientists - who meet next week at the Political Studies Association annual conference in Glasgow - are still a rare group among the vice chancellors. But he thinks the discipline may confer some minor advantages: "If you study politics I suppose it is inevitable that you look at issues from a 'small p' political perspective. So, for instance, I think about the reaction in my own institution to any decision that might be taken."

He also thinks that recognisability eases contact with politicians: "There is always one question they want to ask and which I am quite willing to discuss, which is what will happen at the next election. But it certainly doesn't mean that your university gets any favours."

And that political sense means that his welcome for the Dearing inquiry into higher education was wary rather than fulsome: "Of course I'm delighted that higher education is to be considered seriously by an independent body led by someone who has everyone's respect. But I find it hard to envisage any of Dearing's proposals being implemented before 1999, by which time we could be into another pre-election period with parties again wanting to delay decisions. Nor should it be allowed to deflect attention from higher education's short-term problems. It is vital that the CVCP keeps up the pressure on this."

Whatever the benefits of political science, he has no doubt that his period as acting vice chancellor, before succeeding formally late last year to the post vacated by Ron Johnston, was immensely beneficial: "It made me realise how difficult it must be for new vice chancellors, particularly if they are not from the university system. It must take a long time to grow accustomed to the institution and there is a danger of reinventing the wheel if you don't know the institution's history."

No danger of that in his case, as he has spent exactly half of his 50 years at Essex, and says: "The danger of appointing an insider may be the lack of a fresh perspective, but I hope that won't be the case."

At Essex he expects to build on existing strengths in the social sciences, looking to start an Institute of Social Science on the lines of the University of Michigan's Institute of Social Research and to develop the commercial potential of the social sciences in the same way that some civic universities have done for science and engineering.

Professor Crewe certainly doesn't accept the view that becoming a vice chancellor is a waste of a good academic: "I don't accept at all that administration is in any way inferior as an intellectual task. The complexity of the tasks and the intellectual demands of administration are at least as exacting."

He has just finished, with Essex colleague Tony King, a major study of the Social Democratic Party. "The project lasted longer than the party did," he explains drily, and he does not expect to start any substantial research in the next few years. But he hopes he can still make some contribution as a commentator on elections: "This will inevitably be more restricted than before. One problem with elections is that you can't predict when they will happen, and fitting in with university terms isn't the prime minister's priority in calling them."

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