Education: A supermarket manager for the masses: Leslie Wagner, 50, University of North London (former Polytechnic of North London).

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The Independent Online
'WHERE Oxbridge is the Fortnum and Mason of higher education, we see ourselves as the Sainsbury's,' says Leslie Wagner. 'You go to Fortnum and Mason for the odd treat, for something exotic and special. Nobody looks for their general food provision there.'

Infamous for student disruption in the Eighties, and riddled with staff despondency, the former polytechnic has improved remarkably as a university. It was once described by an inspector as having 'parts greater than the sum', but Mr Wagner has introduced strict disciplinary procedures and managerial direction, pared down the bureaucracy and created an executive team as well as keeping his door open to staff and students.

He believes it is perfectly possible to deliver quality mass higher education. 'It's not about what resources you throw at students, but what they come in with and what they go out with,' he says. 'Low student-staff ratios do not mean quality.' Like Liverpool, the university is building an open-learning resources centre. 'We want to give students quality time with staff,' Mr Wagner says. 'Technology will free staff for that purpose.'

However, he also nurses ambitions in limited areas of strategic and basic research. 'We did relatively well in the last research assessment exercise. The money we are now getting from the research councils is simply recognition of what we should have received in years past.'

Although innately a manager and politician - Mr Wagner was Labour candidate for Harrow West in 1974 - he is not averse to discussing higher education in spiritual terms. A devout Jew and member of the Chief Rabbi's executive committee, he believes that quality mass higher education is more than just processing numbers. 'It has to have soul and feeling - and that's about responsiveness to cultural diversity and the way people behave to each other.'

He is cautious about the role he can play with other vice-chancellors, although he is active in some of the CVCP's main committees. 'The committee has a size problem,' he says, 'and the issues on which it can speak with one voice to the Government are limited. Individual vice-chancellors will use their own networks for their own ends. My instinct would be to get a collective view.'

(Photograph omitted)

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