The master of red tape

After seven years in charge of the NHS, Sir Alan Langlands left to run the University of Dundee. The budget's smaller, but the challenges are just as big.
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The Independent Online

There was some surprise when Sir Alan Langlands, a Glaswegian and the highly regarded chief executive of the National Health Service in England, retreated 460 miles northwards to run the University of Dundee.

It is part of Whitehall legend that he left partly because of politicisation of NHS management, but Sir Alan, 49, who was appointed principal and vice-chancellor at Dundee nine months ago, makes no comment on such folklore.

He does, however, drop strong hints at the frustrations that may have built up after seven years running the NHS. "The level of government department interference in the higher education sector is much less than it currently is in the NHS.

"When I got fed up with the bureaucracy of the Department of Health and all the machinations of Whitehall, it was always a great fascination for me to go off to see and hear what was going on at the clinical level, where the people were tremendous."

There are also frustrations dealing with a £120m annual budget in academia instead of the NHS's £32bn plus. Sir Alan sees tension between two objectives trumpeted by England's higher education minister Margaret Hodge and endorsed by her Scottish counterpart, Wendy Alexander, to increase student numbers and raise teaching standards. The expansion in student numbers coupled with a 10 per cent reduction in the real value of core grants from the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council has forced university staff to become more efficient. "It's a pretty tough assignment to strive for better quality with less money and more students," he says.

Typically, Sir Alan shows little emotion. However, after pointing out that Labour has been very precise in its financial projections for the NHS and school education, he says something which passes for passion: "They've been very quiet on higher education, and while this university has got a little boost this year of 6.2 per cent in real terms [against the Scottish universities' average of 5.3 per cent], it's not sustained.

"Years two and three are essentially flat funding at the level of inflation. I feel pretty strongly about it because that sort of cycle of funding doesn't enable you to make a difference. You need sustained levels of growth to build up capacity and capability, and to have the flexibility to change and move the institution into new areas."

Universities are too far down the public service funding queue, he believes. Unless the economy becomes incredibly healthy, the Government will have to confront the question of higher taxes in this parliament. "Public investment is still very important," he says. "If there's a failure to invest in the basic science and research infrastructure, we'll pay a terribly heavy penalty. Ten years down the road we'll be even less competitive internationally."

To supplement core public funding and maintain standards, Dundee, like most British universities, has to tap-dance for its dinner. Sir Alan knew he was coming to a university whose multi-million pound Wellcome Trust Biocentre, housing 357 scientists and support staff, is the leading biochemical research institute in Europe. He knew he was coming to a university which is home to Sir David Lane, discoverer of the p-53 "guardian angel" gene active in suppressing 60 per cent of all cancers, and Sir Alfred Cuschieri, whose advanced keyhole surgery techniques are vital to Lane's next task, gene therapy, which requires sophisticated methods for getting manufactured p-53 protein to damaged strands of DNA.

The genius of Sir Philip Cohen, the director of the Wellcome Trust Biocentre, Lane, Cuschieri and others has attracted many millions of pounds in research grants and spawned several spin-out commercial companies. These successes are vital to the economy of Dundee, where the relations between town and gown are particularly close. The university recently launched a Centre for Enterprise Management to accelerate the conversion of academic ideas into economic enterprises. Currently, the university holds 80 patents, some of which Sir Alan is convinced will deliver jackpots. Six of the world's top eight pharmaceutical companies have research and development contracts with the university, and more than 2,100 people, 3 per cent of the city's workforce, are employed in the biotechnology sector – a far cry from the days when Dundee was all jam and jute.

Sir Alan inherited an access programme that has been going since 1993. As many as 10 per cent of the entrants each year to Dundee come from disadvantaged backgrounds and lack the required entrance qualifications. Remarkably, a higher proportion of firsts and upper seconds comes via this route than from any other student category.

As a master of NHS red tape, Sir Alan recognises that his staff feel overburdened by the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), under which universities are judged by the quality of their research. Indeed, Sir David Lane, widely tipped for a Nobel Prize if his 20 years of work on p-53 result in a cancer cure, is particularly scathing about the "academic papers not patents" culture which he says drives the assessment system.

However, Sir Alan urges his staff to keep teaching quality assessments and the RAE in perspective – indeed, "perspective" is his favourite word. "Both have served a purpose," he says. "They might have been implemented in a pretty unsophisticated way and they need to be improved, but, undoubtedly, they've raised standards."

He does not appear to miss his powerful NHS role. Running Dundee is fascinating, he says, and he is full of schemes for improvement. He and the dean of medicine are looking for sponsors to give every first-year medical student a laptop computer. "The evidence is that with a laptop they'd learn as much in their first term as they learn in their first year," he says.

At the university's much acclaimed Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, he's hoping to encourage lecturers to run classes in creative thinking for senior staff. "That could be fun!" he exclaims. "And I would have to include myself in that, I guess."