Eyes on the prize

Alan Gilbert, head of the newly merged Manchester, is reinventing the university to make it a global player. Will he succeed?
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The Independent Online

Last week, Alan Gilbert, the controversial new boss of the two universities that are merging in Manchester, met with senior staff to talk about the future. It was an attempt to gee everyone up, to make them think about where the new university should go, and to involve them in his revolution.

One of a "new broom" group of vice-chancellors who have been recruited from abroad, Professor Gilbert means business. Having made his mark in Australia running the University of Melbourne (arguably the best in that country), he is determined to improve Manchester, which will be the biggest university as a result of the merger, with more than 34,000 students. "Strategically, the university that will come into being on 1 October 2004 has a one-off opportunity to change the essential landscape of English higher education," he tells staff in a document.

And nowhere are the winds of change blowing more strongly than in the University of Manchester. The great traditional civic university that is combining with Umist (the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology) could - until now - have been called a slumbering giant, respected for its research and students but hardly setting the world alight.

Its great moments came in the last century when it housed Sir Ernest Rutherford, the father of nuclear physics, Sir Bernard Lovell, the astronomer and director of Jodrell Bank, and the scientists who developed the first computer. Professor Gilbert is determined to recapture that reputation and to fashion it to serve the economy of the North West. This is "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity", he says, because the old University of Manchester and Umist are being wholly dissolved. "Not one structure, not one institution, not one department or faculty that exists on 30 September will exist on 1 October," he says. "So we really have a legal obligation to decide what we will recreate and what we won't."

Staff have cause to quake in their boots. Departments that are not pulling their weight could cease to exist. The newly merged university ranks in the UK's top five on most measures, according to Professor Gilbert. So it could continue as before and do fine. But that isn't good enough for the vice-chancellor, who believes the new institution should be more ambitious. One of his 14 recommendations for change is that the university should have a lean decision-making structure. There will be a board of governors, a senate, and a planning and resources committee. And that is it. There are hundreds of committees at the moment, he says. "Like all universities, it has a Byzantine structure. We are going to start with a clean slate."

Moreover, Professor Gilbert hopes to create a new link between planning and budgeting. The allocation of resources will be based on what the university decides it wants to achieve, he says, so that Manchester promotes a culture based on performance rather than on channelling money to the people and departments that received it in the past. "We want this to be a university that is good at planning, knows what its goals are and ties the pursuit of these to the allocation of resources. It means we are not going to do the budget next year simply by saying 'What did the constituent parts get last year?' We're saying 'What is each faculty telling us about its goals, and which of these are most congruent with the aspirations of the university?'"

All of which might sound like so much common sense, but it is difficult to reform a 100-year-old institution. As a result of the changes being wrought, Professor Gilbert hopes that the university will be number one in the world in five or six fields. In those areas, it will have fellows of the Royal Society and a Nobel laureate or two. To expedite this, Manchester has advertised 25 new chairs in areas as diverse as chemical genetics, the Arab world and nature and society. The hope is that these posts will bring in giants like Lovell and Rutherford.

"The best universities in the world are places where there are clusters of excellence that are clearly in the vanguard of thinking and research," Professor Gilbert says. "We can't kid ourselves that we can talk about a world-class university unless in Manchester we build clusters of critical mass research of international renown. We will be deluding ourselves if we think we can do that without recruiting differently from how we do now."

Manchester's excellence has reached a plateau, he says. Somehow it needs to climb to the next level. He plans for that to happen by offering the best academics superior laboratories and equipment. To oil the wheels of the merger, Manchester has already won £250m from the North West regional development agency and the Higher Education Funding Council. And it is hoping to get another £100m for new and better researchers.

Professor Gilbert is in favour of performance-related pay, a subject that is anathema to the Association of University Teachers. He believes that traditional universities are under threat from American corporate universities that tailor-make courses for employees. In Australia, his radical ideas, which entailed siding with a conservative federal government that was pushing deregulation, made him a controversial figure. He established a private university of Melbourne alongside the public one, for which he received considerable flak. But he has no plans for a private university of Manchester, he says.

No stranger to controversy, Professor Gilbert believes that it is proper for a vice-chancellor to upset politicians. Nor is he afraid of ideas. One of the key problems we face is the gap between the 15 per cent of the world that is well-educated and the 85 per cent that is not, he says. The fees debate is a sideshow when viewed in that context. Charles Clarke has evinced a desire to meet Gilbert. He should find a soul mate - a tough and articulate spokesman for the university cause.