Arthurian legend: Can Michael Arthur work his magic as chairman of the Russell Group?

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The Independent Online

Two years ago Leeds University had big-time health and safety problems. Asbestos had been discovered, bits of masonry were falling off buildings and there was an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease, according to Roger Klein, a former official with the University and College Union.

"We were pleasantly surprised when we raised our concerns," he says. "Unlike the response we'd have got from some vice chancellors, Professor Michael Arthur was prepared to talk and we agreed a path-breaking agreement, which we used as a model elsewhere."

Professor Arthur would probably rather not be reminded of this but he smiles gamely at the memory, even adding some juicy bits of his own, describing how a wall that was being experimented on for pressure-loading exploded and a scientist ended up with a broken leg.

There were several cases of Legionnaires' disease among students in one hall of residence, he agreed. It was probably caused by a faulty design to a shower. "We took all this seriousl., We stuck our hands up. The most important thing in sorting out a problem is recognising that you have one in the first place."

The incident says a lot about the man who this September becomes the new chairman of the Russell Group, the collection of 20 of the biggest research-intensive universities. Genial and open, and the first Russell group vice chancellor to have been educated at a comprehensive school, he is expected to be a good ambassador for the top universities at a time when they are known to want the top-up fee cap raised so they can increase their income in an era of recession.

But don't be fooled: Arthur's self-effacing demeanour hides a determined and ambitious character. He likes to compare his university with Edinburgh and UCL and has bold plans to put it in the top 50 worldwide by 2015. Now it comes 104th in the Times Higher Education's global league table and between 100th and 150th in the Shanghai rankings, so it has a long way to go to hit his target.

He is not so bothered about Leeds's position in the domestic tables – it came 28th in The Independent's Complete University Guide this year – because these contain measures that may have little to do with academic standards such as spending on facilities and academic services. Leeds is penalised for being a large efficient organisation, he says. It has 31,000 students – the second largest in the country – which means that it doesn't come out well on spending per student.

"And you have not seen as much of an increase in the number of Firsts and 2(i)s that we award at this university as at some others," he says pointedly, alluding to the way that competitors boost their performance in tables. "We have tried to concentrate on being a very good university and make sure our graduates are very well educated, rounded and developed – and that their skills base has been well addressed."

At the same time as burnishing Leeds's academic reputation he is busy renewing his buildings, a hotch-potch of Georgian, Victorian Gothic, neo-classical, and Brutalist modern that have sprung up in a haphazard way and are showing their age. In fact he is transforming Leeds's campus by spending more than £300m, one of the biggest capital investment projects in British higher education.

There will be a new law school, hall of residence, swimming pool and fitness centre (the largest gym in any UK university), as well as a childcare centre. The new £16m Marjorie and Arnold Ziff building, home to students services and some language teaching rooms, was opened earlier this year – and also houses Arthur's new office.

In addition, new pedestrian routes are being established around the campus, so that newcomers will be able to find their way around more easily.

"We have a plan to reconfigure the campus and that has been in part a request from the city of Leeds," he explains. "They wanted a masterplan, including preserving the green space."

When he arrived at the university five years ago, he was met with a maintenance backlog. "Quite a lot of facilities were in poor shape," he says. The backlog was estimated to be £100m, and Arthur has reduced it to £60m.

Research income is up to more than £100m a year, which means Leeds joins a small elite group and is ahead of universities like Bristol and Birmingham.

But the recession puts a spanner in the works and gives him cause for concern. And he is particularly worried about the budget from 2011 onwards. "I wonder just how deep any government will have to go in cutting public sector spending," he says. "I anticipate that higher education would not be protected as much as I would like."

The first five years of his vice chancellorship were spent managing growth and success, but he admits: "The next few years are not going to be that. We will be lucky if we can preserve our income."

Leeds has made savings of 5 per cent this year. It is losing some posts by what Arthur describes as a combination of being careful about recruitment, some voluntary severance and some early retirements. The university is in sound financial health, but the VC is anxious about the future.

"If you think about costs that have increased, particularly pay and pensions, and project forward and think about future cost increases in pay and pensions, then even this university starts to worry about its balance."

Leeds has problems with its school of healthcare where it has lost £2.5m in NHS funding a year, and with biological sciences where it has had an historic deficit coupled with a loss of £1m from the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise. More staff will have to go, says Arthur – 30 from health care and 50 to 60 from biological sciences.

The unions have been protesting and Arthur doesn't rule out compulsory redundancies. "I regard it as a possibility but we have said we would only use that as a last resort," he says.

The key issue for him as he takes up his chairmanship of the Russell Group is maintaining the funding of research-intensive universities.

"It is crucially important for the country and the economy," he says.

The Russell Group is anxious to preserve the selectivity and concentration of research funding. That means they want the money to go to universities that are excellent at research and do a lot of it rather than see the money distributed around the system as a whole.

Arthur expects the review into top-up fees to kick off in September and says he hopes it will be a sophisticated look at a range of issues, including widening participation, postgraduate study, and what happens elsewhere in the world.

If it reports, as expected, after the next general election, Arthur could be dealing with Conservative ministers grappling with the hot potato of whether – and by how much – to lift the £3,200 cap on fees.

He will treat them the same as he did the unions over health and safety – with a masterful mix of courtesy, pragmatism and cool.

Michael Arthur: The CV

Age: 54.

Education: Burnt Mill Comprehensive in Harlow, Essex; University of Southampton medical school.

Career: Research fellow, then lecturer in medicine at Southampton. Appointed to the chair in medicine at the age of 37, then made head of the medical school and dean of Southampton's faculty of medicine, health and life sciences. In 2004 was appoinited vice chancellor of Leeds. Becomes chairman of the Russell Group in September 2009.

Expertise: research into the liver.

Family: Wife Liz is a consultant paediatrician and they have three grown-up children.

Hobbies: photography and sailing.

Likes: The Who.

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