Malcolm Grant: Is the axe-man a saviour?

Malcolm Grant, the tough New Zealander in charge of UCL, will be chairing the Russell Group of top research universities this year. Higher education is in for some very big changes, he tells Lucy Hodges
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The Independent Online

Before Professor Malcolm Grant took over the top job at University College London, the place was in meltdown. The former provost, Sir Christopher Llewellyn Smith, had fallen on his sword after an unpopular restructuring exercise and Sir Derek Roberts, a previous provost, had been reinstated.

Then the merger with Imperial College London was mooted. UCL academics went ballistic and the idea had to be dropped in the face of staff resistance. So, after all this, the smooth-talking Grant was welcomed with open arms by academics who rated his intellectual achievement (he had been a law professor at UCL) and his previous experience at Cambridge (where he was pro-vice-chancellor).

But what probably impressed them most of all was that Grant had the guts to challenge Margaret Beckett, then Environment Secretary, and win. At the time, Grant was chairing a government commission on genetically modified food; Beckett proposed cutting short the time for public consultation. Grant dug his heels in - and eventually the minister backed down.

Academics like a tough guy, especially one who can take on the politicians on an issue of principle and come out on top. But someone who does so can also do battle with staff and there are signs that that is happening with the Association of University Teachers (AUT).

Grant is proposing to cut staff to make UCL viable. The college has been in the red for as long as anyone can remember and the provost believes that can't go on. This year the operating budget deficit is expected to be between £3m and £4m. "We have brought it down from £7m and we're determined not only to bring it down but to eliminate it," says the provost.

Grant wants to reduce staff by 15 per cent over three years to cut a staff-student ratio thought to be the most generous in the country after Oxford and Cambridge. He will continue to plough money back into recruiting dynamic new staff, so the net cut in staff will be more like 10 per cent. "We're committed to reinvesting and bringing in new life-blood," he says. "We don't want to damage the excellence of the institution."

Staff being axed are academics who are not engaged in cutting-edge research. And they are being asked to go by voluntary severance and early retirement. It's a difficult programme, says Grant, but the process has been very open.

"I cannot think of another way of doing it," he says. "The alternative is a hiring freeze. The AUT understands the analysis of the problem and behind the scenes has been extremely helpful in dealing with individual staffing issues."

Although Grant denies that his relationship with the union is souring, things are not as rosy as they were. "We have interesting discussions with the AUT." He says. "I think we have a very reasonable AUT at UCL and they do what they must do, which is to seek to protect the employment of their members. But I don't think they challenge the need to get the budget on to a sustainable basis."

Sean Wallis, the AUT's branch secretary, disputes this. "We don't accept most of his argument," he says. "People are very worried. The students are finding course options disappearing from the websites."

The provost has been extremely energetic since arriving two years ago. He produced a "green paper" outlining the future for UCL, including positioning it as "London's global university" and proposing that much of Bloomsbury be pedestrianised. That was followed by a "white paper". "I think there's a collective interest at UCL in changing and facing the future," he says brightly.

One of the key elements in his "white paper" is to reduce the number of home and EU students UCL admits to match better the money it receives from the Higher Education Funding Council (Hefce) for them. It is taking more of such students than it has Hefce money for. "We are wearing ourselves too thin," he says.

At the same time, like Oxford, UCL wants to increase the proportion of overseas students from 27 to 30 per cent, mostly at postgraduate level, in line with its ambition to become a global institution that is increasing its Masters and PhD students. "We will probably move from a ratio of 30/70 overseas/home students to 40/60 and possibly 45/55," says Grant.

Denying that the reason for this growth in overseas numbers is to make money, he says the real rationale is that this is the right direction for a great research university to be taking in the next 10 years. But providing students with a research-led undergraduate education is very expensive and UCL is not properly reimbursed for this, he points out. Top-up fees, which are being introduced in 2006, will do very little to help.

At this point, Grant says that the Government should lift the £3,000 cap on top-up fees to give universities more freedom and to enable them to raise more money from parents and students. He is hopeful that the new Tory leader, David Cameron, will be more amenable than Labour on this.

"What's encouraging is the prospect that the Conservatives might be about to have an intelligent discussion of higher education policy," he says.

If the universities are not explicit about the need to lift the cap, they will be sorely disadvantaged, Grant believes. The Government will want to do inconsistent things such as continuing to expand higher education (which Grant agrees with) without giving the money.

UCL is part of the University of London. Once upon a time the university used to mean something: it had a planning role. It organised the university's finances and decided on its overall shape. Now it does little more than run a library and a careers service for which UCL has to pay a subscription of just under £3m. "It's a failing institution," says Grant.

Imperial College has decided to leave the university, and UCL has been pondering the same. Like Imperial, it has been granted its own degree-awarding powers, though it has not decided to quit.

Grant has little time for the university. "The University of London is drifting," he says. "It has lost its way. It has lost its mission. It requires radical action." One of its functions is said to be promoting collaboration between the colleges, he explains. But all of UCL's major research collaborations are independent of the University of London.

At the very least Grant is seeking to renegotiate the amount of money that UCL pays to belong to the university. The £3m is too much, he says.

Like John Hood, vice chancellor of Oxford University, Malcolm Grant is a smart and fluent New Zealander who calls a spade a spade. Like Hood, he is trying to breathe new life into an institution that is badly in need of it. If he can provide leadership for Britain's top universities at the same time, he will leave a lasting legacy.

The Russell Group moves into a new era

This year will see a seismic change in the university world. The Russell Group of research-intensive universities (so-called because it meets in the Russell Hotel, London) has decided to beef up its organisation and appoint a director general on a fat salary, who will earn "north of £100,000", according to Professor Malcolm Grant, the president and provost of University College London and the group's new chairman.

"We're going to make the Russell Group into a think tank for research-intensive universities," he says. "We have decided that the interests of our universities need to be more vigorously represented. We need to move away from being reactive, which, given the pace of change in higher education today, is probably inevitable, to being more proactive."

The new director general, who will take over in July this year at the same time as Grant becomes chairman, will have a major leadership role, according to Grant. He, or she, will need to be skilled in policy analysis but also good at representing the universities and dealing with the various stakeholders, other vice-chancellors, the government and the corporate world.

The job would not necessarily go to a former vice chancellor, Grant says cheerily. He or she might be recruited from outside higher education.

A newly strengthened Russell Group representing Britain's venerable civic universities would threaten the existence of Universities UK (UUK).

This is the umbrella group for higher education that, because it has to speak for such a diverse group of institutions, has been increasingly criticised for failing to represent the different kinds of universities - the 1992 Group (the small and beautiful institutions like Exeter and Sussex), the new universities (former polytechnics) and the Russell Group.

"The Russell Group would assume some of the representational and policy work that UUK has been doing," says Grant. "For the research universities there are so many significant challenges, not just the research assessment exercise, but within Europe and, increasingly, research collaborations internationally where there is a strong mutuality of interest."

The Russell Group has to assert the fundamental values of research institutions, according to Grant. World league tables of universities have begun to have a political effect. People have woken up and noticed that UK universities are not doing too badly, he says.

"But they're at serious risk. It's the research intensive universities that continue to score well and need to continue to advance their position."