Australian in London: City University's new vice-chancellor

Malcolm Gillies, the new vice-chancellor of City University, is an Australian who has the formidable task of putting the institution on the global map. Lucy Hodges hears how he plans to do it
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When the young Malcolm Gillies arrived from Australia at the tender age of 18 to study at the Royal College of Music he was blown away by the rich history and cultural energy of Britain's capital. Later, when he returned to the UK to take a further degree at Cambridge and a Masters degree and doctorate at King's College, London, he continued his love affair with the metropolis.

Now he is coming back for a second time to run one of the capital's higher education institutions, City University, in succession to David Rhind, a job that will enable him to capitalise on the unique position that he believes London occupies in the world's imagination. Maybe it takes an Australian, or an outsider, to see London as it really is.

"When you look at City University with external eyes, you see it as having amazing potential, just by building on what London is," he says. "I think it often passes people by who have been brought up in London how powerful the city is and what its opportunities are. Australians aged 18 to 20 think of it as being the first place you go to. It's an extraordinary creative and cultural centre for music, the theatre, the arts generally - and then there's politics and all the universities. The layers of richness and history give you a life-changing experience."

Professor Gillies, 52, is one of a new generation of university vice chancellors with international experience and a global mindset (he is now at Yale University in the United States on secondment from Australian National University in Canberra). He calls himself "an academic of the world". He joins Paul Wellings, another Australian, who runs Lancaster University, and John Hood, the New Zealander who heads Oxford University.

One of his jobs will be to make City University, which specialises in business and the professions, into a global player. He is being charged with developing international partnerships with other institutions around the world, something that he did at Australian National University, one of the most highly rated in Australia.

His position at Yale, where he is learning how that university raises money from alumni and corporations and builds a multi-million endowment, is the result of one of those alliances.

"City has very good outreach, particularly into China and some of the Gulf states," he says. "I would be interested in seeing how permanent or transitory those relationships are as we start to move out of the age of large-scale importation of students into the universities to building links between institutions."

Professor Gillies is talking about the need for City to forge links with universities all over the world through joint degrees, online courses or building overseas campuses. To survive in the new global economy, universities that have ambitions to be academically excellent are having to think about new ways to raise income, now that the overseas student market has peaked. He is particularly interested in tapping universities and potential students in countries such as Thailand and Vietnam, and in Latin America.

His other big job will be to improve the research rating of City, a former college of advanced technology, which became a university in 1966. City languishes towards the bottom of the old universities in the research league table compiled by The Independent in 2001 after the last Research Assessment Exercise. However, Gillies is clearly hoping for a big change in the way that universities are assessed for research.

Change is happening anyway. At Chancellor Gordon Brown's prompting, the RAE is being reformed after 2008 so that science, engineering and technology will be subject to a metrics-based rating. This means they will get money from the Higher Education Funding Council in proportion to the amount they also receive from the research councils. Humanities and social sciences research will still be subject to some peer-reviewed assessment.

Gillies, however, thinks there should be further reform. He has thought a great deal about the subject because he was in charge of a large study as chair of the Council for Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences in Australia. He thinks that what the Government should be measuring is both the quality and the impact of research on the training of future generations and on the public. "You should be looking at how the research is applied by the professions and how you are building skills at graduate level to produce the best workforce," he says.

"That is where governments have often fallen down. The thing is to think of how to evaluate research for what it does for the nation rather than as a reward exercise for individuals and for universities."

Adopting this deeper view would work to the advantage of a university such as City, which does a lot of applied research. It got a 5 (the top grade) in arts policy, business, information science, law and optometry, and a 5-star in music in the RAE last time round.

While at Yale he has learnt a good deal about how that university raises money and believes that only some of the Yale experience is transferable to City. As City is deeply urban and students don't live on campus much, the undergraduate experience is very different from Yale's. "You can't expect the same degree of bonding or loyalty - and with that you can't expect the same sense of giving."

But postgraduate level is different, he thinks. And City has a large proportion of graduate students - one-third of the total. At that stage you can build a strong sense of alumni affiliation. So, expect more determined efforts to nurture graduates in the areas of journalism, business, accountancy, radiography and optometry.

The new vice chancellor is also expected to devote attention to the overseas student experience. Thirty per cent of City's students come from abroad. It is vital that they are satisfied with their courses, he says, particularly at a university that gets such a high proportion of its income from student fees. "In my view, the best marketing toola university can have is satisfied students because they go to their friends and say, 'You should be here too.'"

City's great asset is the Sir John Cass Business School, which has a strong suit in its Masters courses geared to the global financial services industry and is located in a spiffing new purpose-built site near the Barbican. The reputation of much of the rest of City is less glittering, although the university has carved out some niche areas, such as journalism.

Under the current vice chancellor, David Rhind, who leaves in the summer, the university has developed good relationships with the City of London. The big question is how the new boss will be able to distinguish the institution from the other 41 universities in London. If he can't, should he be thinking about a merger? The subject has been mooted before by City, but the time to act may have passed.

Gillies says: "The issue of how different parts of higher education in London relate has been very much on my mind. It's a topic on which there has been a lot of movement over the years. I would think that's a conversation that any vice chancellor of City University has to be part of. At the end of the day, what we should be seeking to do is to maximise the student experience and learning."

In other words, mergers, alliances, collaborations, all are up for grabs. And you can be sure that Gillies will be thinking hard about what will benefit his university, the people of London and, indeed, the world.

The CV

Born 23 December 1954, Brisbane, Australia.

Education Degree in classics, Australian National University (ANU); degree in music, Cambridge. Master's degree and PhD, King's College, London.

Current job Vice-president (development), ANU, based mainly at Yale.

Previous job Deputy vice-chancellor (education), ANU; dean of music at the University of Queensland, pro-vice chancellor at the University of Adelaide.

Likes Bartok, swimming, raw vegetables, sudoku.

Dislikes Kippers, caged birds, hypocrisy, automated telephone response.

Family Male partner for last 27 years, David. No children.

Where does he call home? Wherever his piano is.

Books The Bartok Companion. With David Pear, Portrait of Percy Grainger, Grainger on Music, The All-round Man. With Halsey Stevens, The Life and Music of Bela Bartok. Plus other books on Bartok and Grainger. LH