London Met gets a radical rethink

Malcolm Gillies has a tough job rescuing an ailing university in serious financial trouble. Lucy Hodges talks to him about his plans

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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
Child's play: letting young people roam outdoors directly contradicts the current climate
lifeHow much independence should children have?
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book
booksFind out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Arts and Entertainment
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>
filmRobert Downey Jr named Hollywood's highest paid actor for second year running
Life and Style
Dale Bolinger arranged to meet the girl via a fetish website
Sign here, please: Magna Carta Island
propertyYours for a cool £4m
Life and Style
The Commonwealth flag flies outside Westminster Abbey in central London
Arts and Entertainment
Struggling actors who scrape a living working in repertory theatres should get paid a 'living wage', Sir Ian McKellen has claimed
Skye McCole Bartusiak's mother said she didn't use drink or drugs
peopleActress was known for role in Mel Gibson film The Patriot
Arts and Entertainment
tvWebsite will allow you to watch all 522 shows on-demand
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

IT Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: We are seeking a teacher o...

History Teacher

£110 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: We are seeking a teacher o...

IT Teacher

£110 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: We are seeking a suitably ...

Year 3 Primary Teacher - Dewsbury

£110 - £155 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: An excellent, last minute opp...

Day In a Page

Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary
Legoland Windsor's master model-makers reveal the tricks of their trade (including how to stop the kids wrecking your Eiffel Tower)

Meet the people who play with Lego for a living

They are the master builders: Lego's crack team of model-makers, who have just glued down the last of 650,000 bricks as they recreate Paris in Windsor. Susie Mesure goes behind the scenes
The 20 best days out for the summer holidays: From Spitfires to summer ferry sailings

20 best days out for the summer holidays

From summer ferry sailings in Tyne and Wear and adventure days at Bear Grylls Survival Academy to Spitfires at the Imperial War Museum Duxford and bog-snorkelling at the World Alternative Games...
Open-air theatres: If all the world is a stage, then everyone gets in on the act

All the wood’s a stage

Open-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Rand Paul is a Republican with an eye on the world

Rupert Cornwell: A Republican with an eye on the world

Rand Paul is laying out his presidential stall by taking on his party's disastrous record on foreign policy
Self-preservation society: Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish

Self-preservation society

Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish
Generation gap opens a career sinkhole

Britons live ever longer, but still society persists in glorifying youth

We are living longer but considered 'past it' younger, the reshuffle suggests. There may be trouble ahead, says DJ Taylor