The incoming Hefce chief will not just want to mind the shop. Anna Fazackerley reports
David Eastwood, the new chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, pledged this week to thrust universities back into the political limelight.
Professor Eastwood, vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia, was handed the purse strings of the higher education sector this week, ending months of speculation.
He will not take over officially until September, but in the coming months Professor Eastwood said he would battle to protect teaching and research budgets in the tough government spending review, for which negotiations begin this summer.
He told The Times Higher: "Part of my new role is to ensure that the Government understands the success of the sector, but also that higher education doesn't get eclipsed by other education and research priorities."
He added: "I'm sure none of us wants quite the degree of exposure that we had in 2004, but I don't think higher education should be taken for granted."
While Professor Eastwood was known to be one of the frontrunners for the job, many in the sector predicted that Sir Ivor Crewe, vice-chancellor of Essex University and the former president of Universities UK, would be appointed.
At 47, Professor Eastwood is young to be given such a high-level job. Other vice-chancellors said this week that this gave a strong message to the sector that despite months of rumours, the Government had no intention of phasing out the funding council.
Professor Eastwood suggested this week that he had been appointed in part for his long term strategic vision. He said Hefce would still play an important role in ten years' time.
Professor Eastwood is known for his ambition. He chairs the 1994 group of research-intensive universities, UUK's longer term strategy group, Hefce's research committee and the Quality Assurance Agency's steering group for benchmarking, as well as sitting on the Hefce board.
One university head who is close to him said: "I don't think David will want to simply mind the shop. If he takes the job, he will have agreed with the Department for Education and Skills that he must have some scope for change."
The unpopular 2008 research assessment exercise will present Professor Eastwood with one of his biggest public relations challenges. But he said he was keeping an open mind about the future of the exercise after that date.
He said: "It is important that the RAE is a success. It does a lot of things that are not on the tin. It is used by institutions as a performance management tool. It is a pretext for doing things they should be doing anyway. The benefits are not just of funding."
He added: "As we get closer to the RAE, expectations do need to be managed appropriately."
But Professor Eastwood said that he would not be guided by a desire to make friends - and nor was he motivated by the potential for a knighthood.
He said: "If I'm unpopular because I'm doing a bad job, I would care a lot about that. But as a university teacher you learn that you cannot desperately try to make people like you. You discover that students want you to do a good job, then they will respect you, and then some of them will like you. This is similar."
Professor Eastwood said that he would not allow troubled institutions to reach financial crisis point. "If the funding council needs to intervene, it needs to intervene early and it needs to intervene by working with an institution to identify necessary changes."
Professor Eastwood will support Steve Egan, the acting chief executive of Hefce, for the next six months. But he said: "I won't go round the sector making speeches - partly because I have my vice-chancellor position, and partly because I think it is important for me to listen as well as to speak."
Eastwood on the RAE
It is important that the RAE is a success. It does a lot of things that are not on the tin. It is used by institutions as a performance management tool. It is a pretext for doing things they should be doing anyway. The benefits are not just of funding.
If I'm unpopular because I'm doing a bad job I would care a lot about that. But as a university teacher you learn that you cannot desperately try to make people like you.
On failing institutions
If the funding council needs to intervene it needs to intervene early and it needs to work with an institution to identify necessary changes.