When Malcolm Gillies stepped down as vice-chancellor of City University in London he didn't know what would happen, he says. He needn't have worried. The telephone rang almost ceaselessly, and that included calls from most of the headhunting firms, he recalls. "That was a vote of confidence," he says. "They said just carry on. If it hadn't worked out in one place, there's no reason why it shouldn't work in the next."
That is the closest Gillies comes to talking about his sudden exit from City after what is reported to be a disagreement with his board of governors about who called the shots at the university. The soft-spoken Australian music scholar now has what many would regard as the toughest job in the higher education world – he is boss of London Metropolitan, the university accused of claiming £36.5m for thousands of students who had not taken their assessments at the end of the year. Technically, they should not therefore have been counted as students, and the university is having to repay the money to the Higher Education Funding Council (Hefce).
At the end of 2009, the board of governors was forced to resign after Hefce said it was difficult to have confidence in them – and the governing body is now being rebuilt. A report into the affair put much of the blame at the door of Professor Brian Roper, the former vice-chancellor, and described the management style as "dictatorial".
The new VC, who has been in post for just over two months, has been at pains to put that right. As soon as he arrived on 25 January he met with the IT people to make sure he could send out messages to staff and students and establish a rapport with them. "I asked people to write to me with their views," he says. "The important thing is to build an open culture in which the university and senior staff have an obligation to consult but where staff and students recognise that the university's leaders have the power to act and, sometimes, to act decisively."
With 31,500 students on two campuses, London Met has a history of poor industrial relations going back decades. The unions have a reputation for militancy and strikes, which did not cease when the two universities – North London and Guildhall – merged to form London Met in 2000. Roper is known to have had an abrasive relationship with both Unison and the University and College Union.
His successor Gillies says he has had several meetings with both unions. "I believe the relationship with a union is an essential part of a university's daily life," he says. "There need to be people who will speak for the various constituent bodies of your community. If they weren't there, you would probably artificially have to set them up. So long as that consultation and discussion is respectful and based upon a degree of evidence that can be a very fruitful relationship.
"The difficulty comes about when things become intractable on one side or the other and can only be broken by a very heavy action. That's obviously not the place you seek to go. Times are financially very serious. We're not even sure what the next government will do or what its higher education policies will be. It's important for us to be nimble and able to make quick decisions."
So, the relationship between the two sides has thawed, but it's hardly cosy. If there were to be more cuts in staff – on top of the 50 compulsory and 100 voluntary redundancies already agreed – there would likely be trouble.
Staff are disappointed that London Met's nursery for the children of students and staff is to close. "What we needed from Malcolm in his first 100 days was something concrete to mark a change of direction," says Cliff Snaith, UCU branch secretary. "We're not overwhelmed because we have had no signal of change. What we need is more staff representation on the governing body and elected representatives on the academic board."
Another UCU member said that academics appreciated the tone of the messages from Gillies. "His communications are quite pleasant," he said. "He has been personable and has been going around the university having a lot of consultative meetings."
The new VC has been occupied with trying to get the university back on track. He is grappling with the big funding issues that are consuming all universities as well as the problem of paying back £36.5m. A small amount has been paid back already but larger sums will be repaid at the rate of £10m a year from this autumn. He has also been rewriting London Met's strategic plan to put the quality of student learning at the top of the list.
In the recent budget, the university lost 0.6 per cent of its funding, but no one knows what the future holds at a time of impending public sector cuts.
Gillies has been taking the opportunity to have a radical rethink of teaching and learning, asking questions such as whether London Met needs to have great batteries of computers when so many students have laptops. "We have a lot of equipment which is very out of date and we have to find ways of getting up-to-date and becoming more efficient," he says.
He is keen on the idea of using new technology to teach students who are distributed between two campuses and 19 different locations in north London and talks lyrically about virtual simultaneous classrooms of the kind that were introduced when he worked at the Australian National University in Canberra. Students in Australia and Tokyo could be taught at the same time by one lecturer giving the lecture in real time.
On the issue of collecting data on students for which the university was so criticised, Gillies is unable to say that he is confident London Met's systems are working well. But data collection is getting better and the university has procedures for checking on it, he says. And on the other question of whether all staff now understand the rules for students progressing from one year to another, he challenges any vice-chancellor to have fully understood the ins and outs of this.
England needs a more flexible way of funding students, he thinks, which takes into account people's changing circumstances so that a university is not penalised when students fall pregnant, get ill, or land a job unexpectedly. Until the rules are changed, he has taken steps to make sure that staff are fully aware of them.