My Biggest Mistake: Baroness Perry

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The Independent Online
Baroness Perry is vice-chancellor and chief executive of South Bank University. She was given a life peerage in 1991, after a distinguished career in education, including 16 years with the Department of Education and Science, which she joined in 1970 as a staff inspector. She eventually became Chief Inspector of HM Inspectorate, advising ministers on higher education, teacher training, research and international relations. At the South Bank, she has created an ethos wedded to business and industry. Baroness Perry, who is 60, was made a Freeman of the City of London last March.

MY biggest mistake was underestimating how awful the Inner London Education Authority could be. It completely wrong-footed me when I took on the job as director of the South Bank Polytechnic (now University) in January 1987 when it was still under the Inner London Education Authority.

I had come with the firm intention of running the polytechnic like a business. I wanted to motivate the staff to think of being in business. I thought I'd be able to break free of any Ilea shackles.

As it turned out, it took two years to change the dominant Ilea culture.

The trade unions virtually ran the place. Everything was done by having huge committees to decide matters. Deans of the colleges were elected, instead of the most able people being selected and appointed. You couldn't fire people if they were found to be incompetent. And there were at least 50 of the staff contributing nothing.

People held out their hands waiting for financial support instead of going out and doing something, such as winning research contracts from industry, which would bring in funds.

It was an arid and sterile atmosphere. Little wonder the majority of the staff were demotivated - because little was demanded of them. And it affected the students as well.

Getting across the message that the students, business, industry and UK plc were our customers was a formidable task. But I am a devious woman. I first got the students and the Student Union on my side, for they were frustrated beyond belief because of the absence of any management structure.

I lobbied the lay members of the Council of the Polytechnic shamelessly. And that autumn day in 1987, when we got the vote through for the changes I proposed, I skipped through the corridors in triumph. But I had no time to hang about.

In the old regime, the 40-odd committees involved only 10 per cent of staff, who seldom spoke to ordinary members. It was impossible to reach decisions. I was determined to change that and raise motivation. I succeeded in abolishing all but a few key committees and put a management structure in place.

Individuals were given job descriptions that set out accountability. Staff were given more freedom. I set up a financial structure where creativity could be released - and rewarded according to ability and effort. Some staff began to earn a lot of money as we won outside contracts. I told them I'd be happy to see them driving Porsches.

The real breakthrough came in 1989, when polytechnics were taken out of local authority control and the dead hand of Ilea was lifted. By this time, the overwhelming majority of staff was on my side. We set up an Industrial Liaison Unit to extend our contacts with business and industry, and negotiated contracts to provide training, consultancy and research.

Staff spread their wings. Some who were in the pounds 20,000-pounds 25,000 range found they could earn an additional pounds 12,000 a year. We now have 17,000 students, where five years ago there were 8,000. Our income is now pounds 67m, with more than half generated by our staff's efforts, compared with pounds 28m under Ilea, which provided pounds 26m of that.

Lessons learned? Not to accept a job without doing the homework; and to remember that any organisation is part of the community, and it is always bound to share all the stresses and strains of that community.

(Photograph omitted)