Richard III isn't the only discovery at the University of Leicester - its vice-chancellor Bob Burgess has shaken up higher education

As he prepares to retire, Lucy Hodges talks to colleagues about his legacy and his ongoing campaign to modernise degree classifications
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The Independent Online

When the sociologist Bob Burgess was appointed to the top job at the University of Leicester 15 years ago, he took the helm of a dull, mid-ranking institution that left people unimpressed.

Now, as he prepares to bow out, it is climbing league tables, winning prizes and confidently squeezing maximum publicity from unearthing the skeleton of King Richard III.

Little by little, he has wrought improvements in the university's performance so that today it is in the top 20 in the league tables and able to compete with the best.

It is the most inclusive of Britain's leading universities, which is why it has given itself the tag "Elite without being elitist". A £1bn development programme has provided impressive new facilities, earning Sir Bob the nickname "Bob the Builder". Additions to the campus include a £32m library and an award-winning student union building.

"What he has done at Leicester is his single greatest legacy," says professor Paul Curran, vice-chancellor at City University. "He has focused relentlessly on academic quality and the university's rise has been consistent and gradual, which is what you want."

But he has done more. He has made his mark on UK higher education for his work on postgraduate education and degree assessment. He established the UK Council for Graduate Education which this year celebrates its 20th anniversary and his work on degree classification reform gave birth to the Higher Education Achievement Report that is now being developed in the majority of universities.

A born diplomat and problem-solver, Sir Bob has chaired the Higher Education Academy (HEA), which champions teaching and learning in universities, and the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. He is widely credited with having turned the HEA into an effective and coherent organisation.

"His biggest contribution has been on the national stage," says Sir Steve Smith, former president of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter. "I really admire his perseverance over the reform of degree classifications. It is incredibly complicated and there have been loads of obstacles but he will go down in history as the person who led the way from the old world to the new."

According to Sir Peter Scott, former vice-chancellor of Kingston University, Burgess is "the one vice-chancellor who has actually been committed to and interested in the curriculum, as well as in learning and teaching".

Sir Bob has thought long and hard about the archaic British method of classifying degrees into First, 2.1, 2.2, and so on. Like other critics, he thinks that the system is unfair to students because it reflects crudely what they achieve and creates an unhelpful divide between those awarded a 2.1 and those who get a 2.2.

In 2004, the Burgess Measuring and Recording Student Achievement Scoping Group concluded that the existing classification system had "outlived its usefulness and is no longer fit for purpose".

The following year the Burgess group recommended a three-point scale of pass, fail or distinction, backed by transcripts of achievement.

This ran into trouble. Although his fellow vice-chancellors had agreed that degree classifications should be abolished, the plan was rejected after consultation with the higher education sector.

Sir Bob and his group retired to lick their wounds. The upshot was a proposal to introduce a Higher Education Achievement Report (Hear) to provide much more detail about students' academic qualifications including module marks and assessment methods. It would also give information about extra-curricular activities, and responsibilities such as employability skills, work placements and volunteering.

Cleverly, Sir Bob and his colleagues organised a pilot to show that the Hear could work. This was successful and the Hear was rolled out nationally in 2012.

But concern with the UK's degree classifications continued. A group of universities began to look at a US-style "grade point average" system to replace or run parallel to degree classifications.

Then, in 2013, David Willetts, the Minister for Universities and Science, asked the Higher Education Academy to oversee a national debate on introducing a Grade Point Average (GPA) system.

Suddenly, Sir Bob was back in the thick of it, chairing the group that was supervising a pilot of 21 universities interested in the GPA. He is continuing with this in his retirement. Its outcome is uncertain but Sir Bob is hopeful it could produce change.

The story of GPA reform shows how committed he is to the ideas that matter to him. "He has shown charm and inner steel in the way that he has got degree classification reform on the road – and kept it going," says professor Paul Webley, director of the School of Oriental and African Studies. "That should have a serious impact in the long term."

Pursuing this is a testament to Burgess' ambition. Changing the system of assessing degrees is a big undertaking affecting students and academics alike – and it could have landed him in hot water. It is a reflection of his personal skills and knowledge that it did not – and that support for it is, if anything, growing.

Sir Bob's charm has helped. Professor Nick Petford remembers how Burgess went out of his way to be friendly to him when he assumed the vice-chancellorship of the University of Northampton.

"He invited me to come and see him," he says. "And he was very helpful in giving me advice about the relationship between Leicester and other Midlands universities. I appreciated that he was prepared to share that with me."

Graham Crow, professor of sociology at the University of Edinburgh, remembers him as an external examiner. "He is very unassuming," he says. "He is ordinary in the best sense of the word. He doesn't have airs and graces."

Sir Bob may have been slow to embrace new technology (he has only recently begun to write emails with the acquisition of an iPad) but he is good at listening to people at all levels and making them feel that they matter.

"He stands out among vice-chancellors for being constantly even-tempered, thoughtful and wise," says Andy Westwood, chief executive of GuildHE. "He is not a grandstander."

GuildHE can be grateful to Sir Bob for his advice on how to handle the Government's reforms to teacher training. As chair of the UUK/GuildHE Teacher Education Advisory Group he was keen to canvas opinion among teacher training providers and was adamant that you had to marshall the evidence before going into battle.

Those who have worked closely with him are great fans. "Bob is good at bringing people together and focusing on positive outcomes," says Greg Wade, a programme manager at Universities UK.

Sociologists appreciate his work on improving research methods in sociology. Burgess joined the British Sociological Association, rising to be its president, after an early stint producing pamphlets against the 1980s cuts.

"He did the things that he said he would do and he organised things," says professor Jennifer Platt, Emeritus professor of sociology at Sussex, who preceded him as BSA president. "A lot of sociological researchers are good at research but not all are as competent as him at getting things done."

If all this sounds too good to be true, there are grumbles inside the University of Leicester about Sir Bob's lack of aptitude with digital media (although he is learning fast for retirement). And university staff have not always welcomed how he keeps tabs on everything.

But it is precisely this attention to detail, including a policy of zero tolerance of litter on campus that has got Leicester where it is. Sir Bob had a vision for the university and he put his legendary capacity for hard work behind it.

Higher education watchers say it is a tribute to him that Leicester has attracted such a star to succeed him, professor Paul Boyle, chief executive of the Economic and Social Research Council.

"I think the sector will miss Sir Bob," says Mr Westwood. "Perhaps it doesn't realise yet how much it will miss him, but it will."

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