A new man at the top

Rick Trainor, who has just been made principal of King's College London, has a tough job to make his university more coherent and give it a higher profile. Lucy Hodges talks to him about his plans for reform
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The Independent Online

Rick Trainor appears rather grey. The new principal of King's College London has been up since 6am and I am meeting him at 7.30pm. He looks as though he needs to put his feet up, but first he has to answer my questions and project a suitably bouncy impression of King's.

He makes a good fist of it - as you would expect from the man who put Greenwich University on a sound footing. "I am going to build on the very considerable strengths and traditions of King's and attempt to make it an even more excellent university than it is now," he says carefully. "My goal is to make it an outstanding university."

The fact is that Professor Trainor has his work cut out. Founded by King George IV and the Duke of Wellington in 1829, King's is still a highly regarded college of London University with 24 subjects rated 5 or 5* (the top grade) in the research assessment exercise (rae). But it has become a sprawling monster of a place in the past 20 years, as a result of a series of mergers, and desperately needs to be melded into a coherent whole. Trainor knows that. "I want people increasingly to feel part of one institution," he says. In addition, King's has been punching below its weight for some time now, particularly compared to its great rivals, Imperial College and University College London. Thirty years ago it was one of the most highly rated of London University's colleges, with noted humanities programmes, especially in history, theology and war studies, but with excellent science and engineering too. It is still highly regarded - it is in the top five for research earnings and is very good at raising money from alumni and other benefactors - but it has lost a little of its lustre of late. The humanities remain good but science and engineering have suffered, due to a lack of students. Most worryingly, it has had to drop chemistry as an undergraduate course because of a dearth of students and a less-than-stellar performance in the rae. Trainor emphasizes that there is still a lot of chemistry at the college, particularly in the health sciences. "In no sense is King's giving up chemistry," he declares. "It intends to have a very major presence in science and technology."

But he acknowledges that the college has not been making the impact that it should. Part of the reason is that it has been preoccupied with expansion. The mergers began in the 1980s, with the King's College School of Medicine and Dentistry, and then with Chelsea and Queen Elizabeth Colleges. In the 1990s it went on, as King's gobbled up the Institute of Psychiatry in Denmark Hill, south London, and two more medical schools, Guy's and St Thomas's.

Today its medical school is the largest in Europe and the college has five campuses spread out north and south of the Thames. On the face of it, the college has a lot going for it - but it suffers from a lack of identity and has failed to project itself in the newly competitive world of higher education .

The American-born Trainor, who cut his teeth in university administration at Glasgow University before taking over the helm at Greenwich, denies that King's has lost its way. "King's has achieved a great deal in the last 10 or 20 years," he says. "Just a little over 20 years ago King's had no medicine. That is a massive achievement - to have integrated institutions of that size, prestige and with such complex relations with the community. The emphasis at King's necessarily for the last few years has been on integrating the parts of the college which became part of it most recently. Now the emphasis will be on having that increasingly coherent institution lift its profile and compete even more effectively, both nationally and internationally."

Although he has only been in his post for a few weeks, the new principal already has plans for the place. First, he says, he has to talk to staff and students. One of his priorities is to make the college increasingly conscious of the world outside its gates, just as Professor Ivor Crewe, president of Universities UK advocated last week.

That may mean King's recruiting more overseas students than it does already. "There is a fast-changing context, local, national and international within which universities operate," says Trainor. Last year King's had 3,800 overseas students - from both the EU and countries further afield - out of a total of 19,236 students. Expect the numbers from abroad to grow.

The international scene is much more competitive than it was, although, as Trainor points out, UK universities are also more collaborative now. Certain forms of collaboration have become more fashionable than they were five or 10 years ago. He is not thinking of any more mergers; he feels that King's has had enough of them and mergers, anyway, are rather out of fashion.

Collaboration is another matter. "My colleagues and I will be on the lookout for various forms of collaboration within the UK, some of which may be in London, some outside," he says. "One needs to be pragmatic about issues of collaboration."

At Greenwich he set about a major collaboration with the University of Kent, developing a joint campus at Medway which included a new school of pharmacy. That took vision and determination, and similar developments should be expected at King's.

The college already has a number of significant overseas partnerships: with the Universities of North Carolina and Columbia in the USA, and Monash in Australia. Trainor hopes to build on those. He plans to achieve more coherence for the college through academic initiatives. Ideally the way to do this is to encourage departments to work with one another. A lot of the most interesting new ideas in academe come at the intersection of disciplines. If Trainor can put all the different bits of King's in contact with one another he could find the place fizzing with ideas and produce a more integrated whole at the same time.

At Greenwich he reorganised the university's internal structure, removing the faculty layer and making the schools the prime academic units. He also merged one or two schools. Inevitably, not all the academics liked what he did. A few were made redundant. One view was that he was "an indecisive control freak", to quote one unnamed source. Another was that he was "an elitist who never made the transition to an access university".

It raised a few eyebrows when Trainor moved from running a new university to running an old one after only four years in the post. To an outside observer, he seems like more of an old university- than a new-university man. Having been educated at Brown and Princeton universities in America, and at Oxford in the UK, he is an Ivy League product, courteous, open and rational. And he must be one of the few new university vice chancellors to have sent his son to a leading public school.

But Trainor rejects the description. "I see myself as a university man, full stop," he says. "I really believe in universities of various kinds. All of the different types of university are making an important contribution."

Many of those with whom he worked at Greenwich were sad to see him go. The women liked him because he changed the culture for them, making some strong senior appointments of women academics and managers. Lord Holme, Greenwich's chancellor, said: "Rick has a great energy and purpose, a clear mind and exceptional analytical skills, which enable him to consider problems in a 360-degree fashion. These qualities sit side by side with his quiet and understated manner and his great gift with people - not least because of the careful and courteous way he has of listening to what everyone has to say."

At Greenwich he also reduced the number of campuses. The academic and administrative restructuring that he instituted led to considerable cost savings for the university. He says he won't be doing any such re-engineering at King's.

"The college already has quite a streamlined structure," he says. "Although there are a number of campuses at King's, to some extent that's built into the nature of medical schools relating to three major teaching hospitals - Guy's, King's and Thomas's - plus, of course, the Institute of Psychiatry and the Maudsley. The medical school provides the overarching structure that helps to knit all that together."

Despite the lateness of the hour, Trainor finishes on an upbeat note. This is potentially a really good time for universities in Britain, he says, because there is now recognition of their importance to the country economically, socially and culturally. Also, people have come to understand that universities need more income.

Trainor is good at articulating a vision and is adept at networking. Moreover, underneath the charm he has shown he can be ruthless. That is probably a good start for the new principal of King's.