New broom: the new man at Southampton outlines his plans

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He’s British but he cut his teeth in Sydney. The no-nonsense Professor Nutbeam is ruffling feathers at Southampton and doesn’t mind who he upsets.

If British universities want an idea of what it will be like in the next two or three years of swingeing cuts, they should take a look at the Australian experience of the 1990s under the conservative government of John Howard, says Professor Don Nutbeam, the new man in charge at Southampton University.

Australian universities were shocked at the drastic cuts introduced by the Australian Liberal Party; amounting to £404m over three years. The government slashed money from the teaching budget and increased student fees to make up the difference. "Any incoming government will say: 'We've looked at the books and it's worse than we thought and it's going to be tough'," says Nutbeam in his first interview with a British newspaper. "That will be the story even if Labour is re-elected. It will be impossible for them not to address public sector debt and it will be impossible to imagine that won't mean some pain for higher education."

The new vice-chancellor of Southampton is a Brit who has spent large chunks of his academic life at the University of Sydney in Australia, first as professor of public health, then as academic provost. In 2000, he returned to these shores to become director of public health in the first Blair government. He has just completed his first 100 days at Southampton in a whirlwind of meetings and discussions as part of his drive to put Southampton among the top 10 in Britain.

That, in itself, will involve quite a lot of pain for the institution because it will mean dropping two or three subjects in which the university does not excel and investing in those that do. But first Nutbeam wants to talk about the national scene. His comparison with the Howard cuts in Australia is not unduly pessimistic, he believes. The British Government has announced cuts of £915m already from higher education over three years.

There will be more to come, he thinks, but any party will leave that until after the general election. Universities should be sensible about this, says Nutbeam. "In these circumstances there are also opportunities. Universities need to be thoughtful. The Howard cuts involved significant cuts to the teaching budget but at the same time there was a liberalisation of student tuition charges and the door was thrown open to international students."

From 1996 onwards, when John Howard came to power, Australian universities experienced a doubling in overseas student numbers, taking in more undergraduates to boost their reduced coffers. "Whether that has been to Australia's benefit long-term, it's hard to judge. I think it's turned into a bulk education market, not a quality education market."

Ironically, and at the same time, the Australian conservatives exercised a high degree of control over higher education policy during their 11-year rule, he says. First they introduced an elaborate system of price bands for fees related to the cost of teaching but also moderated by a crude estimate of demand and of likely lifetime earnings, according to Nutbeam. That meant that universities received very little government money (less than £1,000 a student) for teaching subjects such as law, and business and accounting because they wanted the universities to charge these students more.

More sinister was the control over research grants. The Howard government appointed a review panel made up of right-wing commentators whose job was to veto research that was thought to be loony. Thus, a radical feminist perspective of the Howard years in government was considered a waste of taxpayers' money. "Despite their market rhetoric, the conservatives in Australia showed themselves wanting to exercise dysfunctional levels of control over higher education policy in a way that I have never observed in the Australian Labour Party," says Nutbeam.

It's not that Southampton's new boss doesn't think that government has a right to control how public money is spent. Of course it should set the direction of higher education, he thinks. "But at the point that it becomes overt interference, it's scandalous."

As someone who has spent more than a decade in the Antipodes, Nutbeam is used to speaking honestly about a subject. So, his attempt to get academics in the schools at Southampton to face up to what needs to be done has ruffled a few feathers – and led to some frustration on his part. Others love him for being so outgoing, friendly and articulate. "He's a breath of fresh air and just what Southampton needs," says one commentator who knows the university well.

Nutbeam takes over a Russell Group institution that is pretty well regarded; it came 13th out of 113 in the Complete University Guide published in The Independent. But it has no cause for complacency because it lost ground in the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise, slipping two places from its position in 2001, and it has a very low public profile. Few people know anything about it. Although it is a comprehensive university, its strength lies in science (particularly oceanography), and Nutbeam implies that any cutting would be in the humanities and social sciences.

"It's clear that there are some parts of the university where we're not attaining excellence – and are not capable of turning things round within a reasonable time frame – so it's likely that in the coming weeks and months we will be commencing processes that will lead to us withdrawing from two or three quite significant areas of activity," he explains. "Our goal is clearly to be a top 10 UK university, which means we have to achieve a step change in our research."

He is also planning reform to the curriculum to give undergraduates the chance to study a broader diet of subjects just as Aberdeen University has, emulating changes at Melbourne and Harvard.

The staff has mixed opinions. But Nutbeam has won enough support to suggest it is worth pressing ahead. Both he and his pro vice-chancellor for education, Professor Debra Humphris, believe that enough students nowadays want better preparation than has been provided by our narrow A-levels and degree courses.

THE CV

Age: 53

Education: St Bartholomew's grammar school, Newbury. A-levels in economics and history, after which he got work as a teller at Barclays Bank. He bumped into his former headmaster who suggested university. Went to King Alfred's College in Winchester to train as a teacher. "The only point of reference I had for a professional person was a school teacher, so the only thing I could think of doing was becoming a school teacher."

Family: Father was an itinerant labourer and dock worker who died when his son was young. The family lived on a "pretty notorious" council estate in Newbury.

Employment: At college he developed an interest in health as the student welfare officer. His first job was as a health education officer in Portsmouth. Deciding he needed more specialised training, he took a part-time Masters, then a PhD in public health at Southampton University. His doctorate was in smoking among schoolchildren. Next job was in heart disease prevention. In 1990 he was appointed professor of public health at Sydney University and in 2000 director of public health in the first Blair government.

Sublime moments: Publishing a national strategy for health inequalities with a forward by Blair and with the back cover sporting 11 departmental logos. "That's a record in government", he says. "It shows it was genuinely cross-departmental." He helped to draft the new law for a ban on cigarette advertising. On his PhD he had found that young people were very susceptible to tobacco adverts.

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