Howard's way: stylish and open

The university funding council's new boss wants public debate. Will this be good for higher education?
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The Independent Online

The most important man in higher education is a little-known figure who controls the purse-strings of universities. For the past six years the chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council was a chubby scientist with a permanent smile, Sir Brian Fender, the former vice chancellor of Keele University.

Dubbed "the mafia don" by Margaret Hodge, the minister for higher education, because of his resemblance to Don Corleone in The Godfather, he was well-liked by the universities because they felt he had their best interests at heart.

This month he is succeeded by Sir Howard Newby, a self-confident sociologist, and former president of the vice chancellors' club, Universities UK, who plans a more open regime and (whisper it softly) to offer much more public leadership in the university world. This is controversial stuff because universities guard their autonomy jealously.

Sir Howard, the former vice chancellor of Southampton University, is leaner, therefore less cuddly, and is well-known for believing that there are too many universities in the United Kingdom. Will he succeed in persuading the less successful to merge, or at least to form alliances? Will he be pushing the Wisconsin model of a hierarchy of institutions within a geographical area? Will he pursue his ideas for funding "by mission", whereby money is given to universities for what they are good at?

In an interview with The Independent before jetting off to China, Sir Howard, mindful of institutions' nervousness, is cautious. "I think the funding council will have a nudging role in restructuring," he says. "I think my board and I will want to take a more active interest in planning but it won't be a top-down plan. It won't be a Newby plan – to the disappointment of some. We will look again at encouraging institutions to focus on what they're best at.

"The council will also play a facilitating role, helping institutions to come together to organise a sensible division of labour. What form that will take will vary. In some cases, there might be mergers, in some confederal solutions, in others strategic alliances or partnerships. I have a genuinely open mind about what form it might take. We will be responding to proposals put forward."

Universities should find this reassuring. Sir Howard may have a more explicit agenda than Sir Brian, but he has a good feel for the system and its sensitivities. "He has a much better understanding of the different needs of institutions, particularly the former polytechnics. than his predecessor," says Roger Brown, the director of Southampton Institute.

Sir Brian was famous for fizzing with ideas. He would think of an idea in the bath on Sunday night, recalls a colleague, come in on Monday morning and want it implemented immediately. There was much that was good about that. But the drawback was that it led to too many initiatives. Despite being well liked, Sir Brian could be tough. He would sometimes get very angry, if thwarted, striding up and down his office, arguing hotly with his senior staff.

Sir Howard is expected to have a more intellectual approach and to be more measured. Yet he will have his own ideas. The Government will probably look upon him with favour. He is thought to be New Labour in his ideology, maybe even to the left of New Labour, and to come from the same drawer as many ministers.

At Universities UK he wrote well-argued papers, notably on university restructuring, which became seminal documents. A political animal, he knows how to build up support for a case and is not afraid to debate ideas openly. "I do enjoy getting about the sector and I do enjoy the cut and thrust of debate," he says.

Sir Howard is very conscious of complaints about the dominance of research. "I want to look at whether we can give similar rewards and incentives for institutions to excel in things other than research," he says. The example he gives is for links with the community and with businesses.

Another concern is what to do about poor performance. If the universities in the UK are to make credible bids for more money and to pay staff better, they will have to look at probation, promotion and appraisal. "It involves human resource development," says Newby.

Sir Howard sees the job of running the funding council as high profile. There's a shaping and guiding role, he explains. "I don't want to sound megalomaniac," he laughs. "It's not command and control, but it's offering a way forward for the sector and offering, through the confidential advice you give, a way forward for ministers too. The job is making sure that money is well-spent and offering a degree of leadership to the sector as well. It's not my role to tell institutions what they should be doing. But higher education is too important for someone not to be its public spokesman."

To that extent he differs sharply from his predecessor. Sir Brian operated in the shadows. Famous for doing deals and whispering words in people's ears, he gave little away. Civil servants and ministers at the Department for Education were known to feel that he was sparing with information. "Brian spent much of his time making sure that people didn't know what was happening," says a colleague.

Sir Howard says what he means and means what he says – and does so with persuasiveness and considerable personal style. Journalists found him to be a breath of fresh air at the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals where, under his presidency, the name was changed – to Universities UK – and there was an attempt to be more outgoing.

One of his first jobs, indeed one of his main jobs now, will be to get more money out of the Government for the universities. He is already running into trouble with the research assessment exercise (rae), which is almost complete and is showing many more universities securing higher grades than last time. But the money to reward these grades is not there. So, he proposes to put the system on hold while he seeks more cash from the centre.

Is this the last rae we shall see? "No," he says. "I can't imagine a system of allocating research funding that is not tied to evaluation in some way, so there will be a research assessment exercise. Whether it will take the present form I have an open mind about."

In other words, watch this space. Simplifying the rae is on the cards. It is possible the funding council might choose to fund only those institutions achieving 4s and 5s [the higher grades]. In that case one would not need all the panels of researchers meeting over several months with all the rigmarole that entails. Like much about reforming higher education, however, it will not be easy.