A man of action from Down Under

Lancaster's gregarious new vice-chancellor, Paul Wellings, may be ruffling a few feathers, but he's putting the university on the map. Lucy Hodges talks to him

Professor Paul Wellings is the kind of university big cheese that the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, likes. The new vice-chancellor of Lancaster University is energetic and outgoing and, crucially, he regards himself as the chief executive of an academic institution.

Traditionally, vice-chancellors saw themselves as top academics or as primus inter pares - first among equals - rather than as chief executives. Typically, they were successful swots; people who were rated for their knowledge by their donnish colleagues and ability to get on with them, rather than for their skills at running an institution and projecting it in the global marketplace. But that is now changing.

Recruited from Australia, Wellings is one of a new breed. Until 18 months ago he was deputy chief executive of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, which has 6,000 staff and operates like a giant research council on the other side of the world. Since then he has been putting Lancaster on the map. Word has it that not everyone likes his style. "He is throwing his weight about," says one experienced higher-education observer. "That is ruffling a few feathers in the university."

Asked whether his approach is putting people's backs up, Wellings looks genuinely surprised. "I think my academic colleagues here want me to project the university," he says. "They know we have to put energy into that. They want a vice-chancellor who is engaged with academic life and who is collegiate and consultative, and they want someone who has a high level of energy and is willing to make contact with people outside the university."

The new chief executive is sufficiently aware of the sensibilities of his academic staff to assert that he is being collegiate and consultative - and there is no reason to dispute that. In any case, Gordon Brown would probably regard this ability to upset a few academics as a feather in Wellings's cap. Certainly some of his colleagues do. "He is full of ideas and expects people to perform," says one. "He wants action."

The problem he faces is that Lancaster is a small (10,500 students) and relatively little-known university a long way from the centre of power in London. Wellings acknowledges that it is not a place people automatically think of when they are considering centres of research. As a institution born in the Sixties, it is of the same vintage as York, Sussex or Warwick, but it has a lower profile and is not sought after by the savvy middle classes.

A decade ago it suffered a financial crisis when a previous vice-chancellor borrowed £39m for a building programme - a library extension and a residential development - and generous investment in staff. He then found he couldn't meet the interest payments. Coopers and Lybrand were parachuted in to draw up a recovery plan. That involved redundancies, a freeze on pay and hiring and the axing of departments or parts of departments.

The strong medicine worked. Today, Lancaster is in good financial health again. It has a surplus of £4.4m and did well in the 2001 research assessment exercise (rae), coming 13th out of 106 universities in The Independent's league table, and higher in some others. But most people have no idea that it is so highly rated. "The thing that strikes me most about Lancaster is that, for its quality, too few people know how good we are," Wellings says. "As many as 73 per cent of our academics are in departments rated 5 or 5-star (the top grade) in the research assessment exercise. And we have three 6-star departments [those which achieved a 5-star in 1996 and 2001]. We have not marketed what is here as aggressively as we should."

The three departments that have won the ultimate accolade and achieved a 5-star in the rae of 1996 and again in 2001 are management, sociology and statistics. That tells you something. Lancaster is not particularly strong in science. Although its physics department rates 5-star and its environmental sciences are distinguished, its primary strengths lie in the humanities.

The new vice-chancellor is not fazed by that, because he says there are two scientific areas in which it is strong - the environmental sciences and new technology - and it has plans to expand those. One of the first things Wellings did when he arrived was to ask the staff in a survey what they thought of the place. He then drew up a strategic plan for the next five years, the first time Lancaster has had such a scheme. That may sound like the action of someone who has attended a lot of management seminars, but the exercise is valuable because it tells everyone where they are going.

Next year, the university celebrates its 40th birthday, which will coincide with investment in new activities valued at £175m. There is a new environment centre, which will be used by the university's environment researchers and by the Natural Environment Research Council's centre for ecology and hydrology. There are new residential blocks for students, which puts Lancaster in a good position to tap into the overseas student market. And there is Infolab 21, which the university is calling a "world class centre of excellence" in information and communication technology. Funded by the Northwest Development Agency and the European Regional Development Fund, it is designed to have an impact on the area by improving computing skills and creating a cluster of technology businesses.

Finally, an Institute of Advanced Studies is being established in management and social sciences to promote Lancaster as the leading centre of excellence in the UK. Most, if not all, of these initiatives were in the pipeline before the new vice-chancellor arrived. But he is running with them, spreading the word that Lancaster is a place that is being reinvigorated. In an average week, he spends a day and a half on the road selling his university to politicians, other universities, businesses and the research councils. The investment in the new environment centre matches the investment in science at Cambridge and London, he says. And InfoLab will be one of Europe's largest IT and communications labs in the public sector. Those are big claims, but Wellings makes them with aplomb.

He is passionate about Lancaster, and about how it can help to develop the economy of the North-west. To that end he has appointed a professional director of commercialisation and enterprise development (who came from investment banking) rather than have the job done by an academic colleague. If he succeeds in putting Lancaster on the map, the university will owe him a big debt of gratitude. And if he doesn't? That doesn't bear thinking about.

l.hodges@independent.co.uk

LANCASTER UNIVERSITY: SIXTIES MODERN, WITH RABBITS AND DUCKS

History: A child of the Sixties like Essex, Warwick, York, East Anglia and Sussex, it opened its doors to 330 students in 1964.

Ambience: Greenfield site two miles from Lancaster, complete with rabbits and ducks, it is modelled on a Spanish hill-top village with views of Morecambe Bay on one side and the Lancashire Dales on the other. Many buildings are Sixties modern. At the centre is Alexandra Square where students hang out in the summer.

Vital statistics: Flexible degree is a selling point. Students can take up to three separate courses in the first year. Thousands of swish new ensuite rooms are being created. A new Lancaster environment centre is up and running and an InfoLab 21 building will be completed in 2004.

Added value: John Ruskin's works are kept in the Ruskin Library. One of only six universities to operate a college system, giving the university a family feel.

Glittering alumni: Peter Whalley and Marvin Close, Coronation Street writers; Robert Fisk, The Independent's Middle East correspondent; Roger Ashton-Griffiths, the Young Frankenstein actor; Alan Milburn, the former health secretary; Jason Queally, the Olympic gold medalist.

Nightlife: Not the UK's biggest party town. But the Sugarhouse, owned and run by the students' union but situated in town, attracts big names.

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