Education: Reluctant convert praises change: Peter Knight, 45, University of Central England in Birmingham (formerly Birmingham Polytechnic).

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The Independent Online
PETER KNIGHT is often in a minority of one on major educational issues. He was the only polytechnic director who did not want to become vice-chancellor of a university. Having reluctantly accepted the new title, he was then the only one who refused to take part in the last research assessment, the basis of the university league tables.

He admits to being wrong on the first stance: 'I was extremely comfortable with our market niche. I was never one in the CDP (Committee of Directors of Polytechnics) who aimed to be university-like, with 90 per cent of students on single-subject degrees. But I misjudged what was going to happen. I underestimated how powerful the word university is. By making all of us universities, the concept has been broadened. It was the right move for the wrong reasons.'

He believes he is still right, however, to have stayed outside the research assessment. 'It would be stupid for a third university in Birmingham to try to do the same as the other two. We have no science department, we have no physics, chemistry, biology, zoology or geology. Once you take out the pure sciences, you are only left with applied and commercially related research. We don't do non-applicable research here, so why take part in such an exercise?'

Up to 17,000 students attend UCE, 7,000 of them part-timers with an average age of 30. The university has a strong regional base, which Dr Knight is happy to continue. 'More students will live at home. Many Asians don't want their sons and daughters to live away from home, and we're here on the doorstep to cater for that. I think it means we're already in a position to recruit from a more diverse base.'

He keeps his eye on the balance sheets and has reduced staff costs to 66 per cent of his total budget - at many institutions that figure is more than 80 per cent. A former general secretary of the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education, he is nevertheless tough on the unions - 'poacher turned landowner', as he calls himself.

He takes value for money literally, but for his own reasons: 'Whenever I am asked whether I like the changes in higher education over the last decade I say 'Yes' unreservedly, for it has meant more students from more cultures having access to it.'

So how do these attitudes endear him to his fellow vice-chancellors? 'I think there will be tensions between the old and new universities . . . I think frustrations will probably build up very quickly.'

(Photograph omitted)