A townie in heaven

As a leading urbanist, the new head of Salford University seems an ideal fit, writes David Walker
Click to follow
The Independent Online
It is not every day a sociologist of decidedly left-of-centre inclination, let alone a former adviser to the Greater London Council, becomes a university vice-chancellor. But then, it is not every university which sits on the same hill from which Friedrich Engels once gazed on the smoking chimneys of Victorian Manchester before penning The Condition of the Working Classes in England, and which last year effected a pioneering merger with its neighbouring further education college which will make it a fully fledged city "multiversity".

There is, in other words, a kind of fit between Michael Harloe, the distinguished urbanist, and the University of Salford, the epitome of urban higher and now also further education. (Last year a merger took place between the university and the University College of Salford, formerly Salford College of Technology, bringing within the university's wall an array of sub-degree qualifications and courses.)

Professor Harloe, 53, takes over at Salford in October, leaving his current post as pro-vice-chancellor for research at the University of Essex. The Essex-Manchester connection is well established. Manchester University's vice-chancellor, Martin Harris, used to be Professor Harloe's boss at Essex and he looks forward to renewing close, collaborative relations again.

Professor Harloe also follows in the footsteps of the former Salford vice-chancellor John Ashworth, who was at Essex in the Seventies. But Professor Ashworth, lately of the London School of Economics and now chairman of the British Library, is a biologist, and until a few years ago natural scientists and technologists were much more likely to move into the top jobs in university government.

But social scientists have been moving on and up, with sociologist Janet Finch taking over at Keele and Tony Giddens becoming director of the London School of Economics. Indeed Essex has become something of a nursery of social scientific managerial talent, having bred up Howard Newby, vice- chancellor of Southampton, and Ivor Crewe, its own vice-chancellor.

After Oxford and postgraduate work at Essex, Michael Harloe established himself as a housing expert, joining Labour Environment Secretary Tony Crosland's panel of wise people in 1975 and serving as a specialist adviser to the House of Commons environment committee. Those were pre-"right to buy" days, when housing policy meant building and refurbishing council houses. Having worked on studies of the capital, Professor Harloe was co-opted by the Greater London Council's housing committee ... one of the members of which, "Red Ken" Livingstone, later became its leader. The Seventies' housing scene was fairly left-wing - collective solutions were preferred to private ones. The way the world subsequently turned is shown by the fact that after being so close to Whitehall in the Seventies, Professor Harloe has barely set foot inside the Department of the Environment in the years since.

His work in those days was "marxisant" rather than Marxist, with lots of theorising about the interaction of capitalism and urban systems. But in the event it was not capitalism but "really existing socialism" in the Soviet Union that fell apart and took the fabric of eastern European cities with it.

Meanwhile Professor Harloe was re-inventing himself as an academic administrator. He came to Essex in 1980 and has since risen in the hierarchy, becoming dean of social sciences then pro-vice- chancellor responsible for research. (He deserves some credit for Essex's advance from 17th to 11th in the research ranking between 1992 and last year. In the same table Salford ranks 39th.)

He found the business of people management "stimulating and exciting ... the most fulfilling parts of the job have been talking to academic colleagues, finding opportunities for what to do. You don't have to be an expert in colleagues' research areas, but you do need intellectual curiosity."

All the while his academic work continued, as editor of the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, and producing and editing works such as The People's Home and Divided Cities. Recently he was part of a consortium which successfully bid for a major grant under the Economic and Social Research Council's new cities initiative.

Going to Salford, then, will be something of a practical apotheosis. The university has gone through vicissitudes since the early 1980s, when it suffered a sharp loss of grant. The urban area it belongs to has also scraped the bottom. But things are now looking up. "The Manchester area has a tremendous amount of self-confidence. In the Seventies, all these great British cities were seen as basket cases. Now things are different. It doesn't necessarily mean conditions of life are any better, but perceptions have changed as the provincial cities have regained their self-confidence."

At Salford he clearly hopes that the university will get back in touch with its urban roots, as a supplier of students for the local and regional economy, and producer of research and consultancy directly relevant to the local economic future - looking, for example, to design, manufacturing and information technology in industrial applications. The excitement of the top job is to have the chance "to shape and respond, not to be a passive victim".

Salford is a big fish in a greater Manchester pool which is nowadays huge. After the merger with University College Salford, it boasts some 18,000 students - a few miles away are Manchester University, Umist and Manchester Metropolitan, each of which are substantial higher education institutions. Professor Harloe belongs to the school which sees higher education as a foundation stone for urban economic and cultural revival. "The four vice-chancellors have very good working relations. I believe Sir Ron Dearing's report is going to encourage more regional consortia - Manchester has pioneered these developments and we are going to take things further.

"Salford is of course a very different institution from Essex - it's bigger, strengthened by the way it is located inside a community. It offers a wide range, from very academic courses and research to life-long learning. Our job is to make the most of that wider range"n