Fighting talk

The Labour peer Tessa Blackstone has bold plans for Greenwich University, she tells Lucy Hodges. But will she clash with her party over top-up fees?
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The Independent Online

The appointment of Baroness Blackstone to the top job at Greenwich University has surprised many people. Why would Tessa, as she likes to be known, a former minister and Labour peer, want to run a former poly, albeit one situated in the glorious Royal Naval College? Why give up the job of arts minister, those free tickets to the Royal Ballet and that chauffeur-driven car, for the thankless and quintessentially unglamorous task of managing a large, underfunded institution that has to work hard to fill its courses?

Tessa, now 61 and dressed, as ever, in a beautiful suit, says: "I decided I wanted to move on and do other things. I had had 15 years in the House of Lords, eight of them as a Labour spokesman in the Lords and six as a minister. I wanted to do one more big job before I would be thought to be too old and have to hang up my boots."

So, having spent the past nine months decorating her Islington home, attending to her four grandchildren and polishing her curriculum vitae, the former minister for higher education is going in to bat for a little-known university in south-east London that takes large numbers of part-time and mature students from ethnic minorities who missed out on higher education earlier on in life. For Greenwich, it is a unique opportunity to raise its profile.

Tessa is a formidable networker and fundraiser. She is also a noted left-wing thinker who gained a reputation in the Seventies for being a radical. She so annoyed Foreign Office mandarins in a report she produced on the lavish lifestyles of British ambassadors that she was dubbed "a dark-eyed evil genius". It is difficult to square that epithet with today's elegant grandmother. But Greenwich will quickly discover - as Birkbeck College, whose Master she was in the Nineties, discovered - that it has a tough manager whose exquisite clothes belie a sharp and serious mind.

The former chairman of the ballet board at the Royal Opera House has plans for Greenwich, though she wants to reassure staff that she has no intention of restructuring the university again. The outgoing vice-chancellor, Rick Trainor, who is to run King's College London, put Greenwich through a reorganisation that involved rationalising campuses and departments and getting rid of staff. "What is needed now is consolidation," she says. "I want to talk to lots of people when I get there because there is nothing worse than somebody who comes in, has a blueprint and pushes it through without consultation."

Nevertheless, she thinks that, first, the university has fantastic assets (the sublime buildings on the River Thames), which need to be maximised in the marketing of the place and, second, that the Thames Gateway, which is going to be one of the biggest urban regeneration programmes in Europe, offers wonderful opportunities. "Greenwich has got to work out where it can make an impact on what that Gateway ends up looking like." What that means is thinking about outreach programmes, research, consultancy and so on, she says.

Third, it's a new university that should be recruiting a lot more international students because it's in London, and people from outside the United Kingdom are attracted by London. Moreover, Greenwich has a good range of applied postgraduate programmes, says Blackstone.

"I feel strongly about the need for the whole higher education sector to play its part in what can be described as the international trade in student numbers. If the UK is going to be successful as a place that receives huge numbers of students from around the world - which I think it should do - then recruitment can't just be in the research universities, but across the whole system."

She plans to attract students from the United States and is hoping that young Americans will fancy the idea of spending their junior year abroad on the south bank of the Thames on the site where Henry VIII was born, where he courted Anne Boleyn and where Christopher Wren planned the great naval hospital. The push to attract Americans has already begun, but the new vice-chancellor wants to increase it and to lay on more one-year masters programmes for US students.

She also wants to develop a graduate placement programme so that students are not just thrown out into the big wide world at the end of an undergraduate degree, uncertain about their future. She believes that their job prospects should be nurtured throughout their courses and that they should be given explicit help to think about what they want to do and how they can achieve that. "I want to develop a network of employers who would be interested in looking at Greenwich students and giving them help in getting jobs," she says.

Baroness Blackstone intends to hold talks with big firms in Canary Wharf - which is close to the university geographically - such as HSBC, Barclays, Credit Suisse First Boston, Clifford Chance and others. She is also hoping to explore with them the idea of Greenwich putting on lunchtime programmes for their staff to update and improve their skills.

"It's very important for a university like this to have a real feel for its locality, not just south-east London but reaching out into Kent," she says.

Tessa believes passionately that we need not just a few world-class universities in this country, but a world-class system of higher education. That means excellence across the system, with different universities doing different kinds of things.

"I think that Greenwich can compete with the best in the country for the quality of its teaching and it should provide first-class experiences for its students in that respect," she says. "Obviously, it cannot compete with the best research universities across the board but it can still develop in a selective way some good research in a range of departments, recognising that not everybody is going to want to pursue national academic research but many will want to do consultancy and be engaged in the local economy."

It is talk like this that makes it look as though Tessa Blackstone is out of sympathy with the Government's higher education policy, which emphasises the market- place and concentrating research funding on the best.

She has made no secret in the past of her distaste for top-up fees and sounds pretty lukewarm today. Although she says she can now support the Government because of the concessions it has made in its higher education bill, she still has questions about some aspects.

"My main concern is a long-term one about what happens with the cap comes off the top-up fee, as I assume it will," she says. In particular, she wonders what will happen to institutions that don't charge the fee that Richard Sykes says he will charge at Imperial College (£15,000 a year). "That would destroy the way in which our system is perceived around the world, which is a very strong one with good quality right across it rather than the American system where there is a long tail of pretty dreadful places."

All of which suggests that Greenwich, as well as the whole new university sector, is getting an articulate champion. Birkbeck academics may have bridled at the way she ran the college. But Gareth Williams, emeritus professor at the London Institute of Education, says she was good for Birkbeck, raising £7.6m and securing its future.