The top adviser with 'some interesting joining up to do'

October 1, 2004

Admitting students to university on the basis of A-level results rather than predicted grades is an "idea whose time has come", according to the Government's top adviser on higher education.

Sir Alan Wilson, the Government's first director-general of higher education, has the task of advising ministers about everything from widening participation, and industry and university links to the Bologna negotiations about drawing together higher education across Europe.

His appointment in October 2003 came as he was planning to step down as vice-chancellor of Leeds University, a post he had held for 13 years, and just as the Government's higher education reforms were facing rebellion on the Labour back benches.

Having seen plans for variable tuition fees reach the statute book, Sir Alan was handed another political hot potato earlier this month when Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, asked him to oversee the shift to a post-qualification applications system, a move that could involve controversial changes to the school and university timetables.

"I think that one of the options has to be that it will be too painful - but that's not where we are starting from," Sir Alan said.

"Steven Schwartz made a strong recommendation about PQA (in his report on fair access and admissions), and the Secretary of State is an enthusiastic supporter of that.

"I think that it's important in terms of both fairness and efficiency. If you are in a position where 50 per cent of your predicted results are wrong and you can change it to applying after the results have come out, that has to be a step forwards."

So when will his proposals be ready for Mr Clarke's in-tray?

"Months rather than years," Sir Alan said, declining publicly to set himself a deadline.

But other issues will press for his attention in the coming months - not least the threat in some parts of the country of closure looming over some academic departments.

Here, Sir Alan believes closer collaboration between universities could be the key - not to saving individual departments, but ensuring that teaching and research in "strategically important" subjects continues regionally.

He said: "One of the things I was interested to discover was the initiative in Scotland that has the physics departments of Edinburgh, Glasgow and St Andrews working together.

"The way I see it is that there might be some interesting joining up to do."

The job of director-general is a new post and was advertised and readvertised before Sir Alan, 65, was "headhunted". Sir Alan assumed he was in the market for part-time jobs and was surprised to be approached about this full-time post.

He said: "From my point of view, it was an attractive proposition to influence the system at an important time."

But how does the brief of the director-general to advise ministers on higher education policy fit in with that of Sir Howard Newby at the Higher Education Funding Council for England?

"Howard and I happily work closely together. I don't think of it as a competitive arena - just doing our best for the system within the structure that's been set up."

I GRADUATED FROM Corpus Christi, Cambridge University

MY MAIN CHALLENGE IS continuing expansion of the research base. That's something we have to work for, as is widening access. But the gigantic opportunity is employer engagement

WHAT I HATE MOST are pointless meetings

IN TEN YEARS' TIME I would hope to still be making a contribution, either as a practising academic, a university manager or as a civil servant

Sir Alan, who has also been a mathematical adviser to the Department for Transport, brings direct knowledge to the question of university and industry collaboration to the department.

In 1990 he spun off his research in human geography into a company, called GMAP, that uses technology to "model" consumer behaviour. The sale of his stake in the company to a US corporation in 1997 was reputed to have earned him about £1 million.

Sir Alan was born in Bradford. He was the son of a factory foreman and a grammar school boy who won a scholarship to Corpus Christi, Cambridge University.

He joined the theoretical physics group at the Rutherford Laboratory aged 22. But his academic career crossed disciplines, leading him to a spell at the Institute of Economics and Statistics at Oxford before taking a chair in urban and regional geography at Leeds in the 1970s. When he became vice-chancellor of Leeds in 1991, the university had just 11,000 students. By the time he stood down, Leeds boasted 32,000 students.

The question of expansion and increasing the numbers of students from poor backgrounds in higher education is another challenge facing universities. Vice-chancellors across the country are awaiting with interest the appointment of a director to the Office for Fair Access, the Government's new admissions regulator.

The department received 38 applications for the post. An appointment is still to be made. Sir Alan would not be drawn on the sort of regulator the department was after other than to say: "Offa will be seen to be doing its job well if Parliament has the reassurance that applications and admissions are fair."

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