Education: When big ideas were not enough

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The Independent Online
MIKE FITZGERALD was a bright and articulate Vice- chancellor, aggressive in the defence of his institution and a passionate proponent of the mission of the new universities.

A leader in the higher education world, he was one of three vice chairman of the university bosses' association, the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, forever jumping up to champion the new universities cause at CVCP meetings. "He was well regarded, even by the traditionalists," according to Frank Gould, vice chancellor of the University of East London.

With his peroxided, spiky hair and his earring (which I was informed recently he had stopped wearing), he cut an unconventional figure. He was also well plugged in to New Labour.

But the ability to network and to have ideas are not enough. As one vice chancellor put it: "You need not only big ideas but you have to see things through."

"There were real doubts about his capacity to run anything," said one expert. "You need to bring someone in alongside you who is good on operational detail," said another.

According to QAA chief executive, John Randall, he had a clear vision of where he wanted to lead TVU but that was not backed up by strength of administration. "When that inherent weakness ran up against the running of a pretty complex modular scheme designed to give a wide range of choice to students, it started getting shaky."

Staff either loved him or hated him. A hard core of agitators, members of the lecturers' union NATFHE, loathed his guts. Fitzgerald became engaged in an unconstructive dogfight with them. The lecturers' refusal to cooperate with his New Learning Environment blew the institution apart.

He leaves behind a clutch of admirers, notably Mike Goldstein, Coventry's vice chancellor, who had been his boss in happier times. "He wanted to create a student-driven, learning-driven institution rather than a staff- driven institution," explains Goldstein.

At the same time, even Goldstein recognises that Fitzgerald may have wanted to drive reform through too quickly. As the architect of all the change, Fitzgerald had little choice but to fall on his sword when the report was made public. The report amounts to a litany of criticism of his leadership.