Ruffling feathers

The outspoken boss of Imperial College London, Sir Richard Sykes, has offended many of his peers with controversial remarks about new universities - particularly Luton. Lucy Hodges reports on the furore
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Universities produce few outspoken characters these days, but one of them is certainly Sir Richard Sykes, the rector of Imperial College London and former captain of industry who has been getting into trouble over remarks he made about new universities and Government funding for higher education. In a newspaper interview, the boss of Britain's science and engineering powerhouse was reported as casting aspersions on Luton University. "For a maths student coming to Imperial College, we get less than the maths student going to Luton," he said. "So is this the way the economy should be spending its money? Is that the way the Chancellor wants to spend his money? Because a penny spent here is a hell of a lot better than a penny spent at Luton, for the economy."

Universities produce few outspoken characters these days, but one of them is certainly Sir Richard Sykes, the rector of Imperial College London and former captain of industry who has been getting into trouble over remarks he made about new universities and Government funding for higher education. In a newspaper interview, the boss of Britain's science and engineering powerhouse was reported as casting aspersions on Luton University. "For a maths student coming to Imperial College, we get less than the maths student going to Luton," he said. "So is this the way the economy should be spending its money? Is that the way the Chancellor wants to spend his money? Because a penny spent here is a hell of a lot better than a penny spent at Luton, for the economy."

The comments caused a furore. Both old and new university vice-chancellors condemned him for his attitudes, though one or two pre-1992 university bosses clearly had some sympathy with them. "I think it was absolutely outrageous and inexcusable for a member of the Higher Education Funding Council (Hefce) board to speak like that," says Dr Peter Knight, vice-chancellor of the University of Central England. "When you insult a university - and it was not just Luton: he said that all new universities were third-rate institutions - you insult all its staff and all the students."

The rector of Imperial College was also reported as calling for the Government's 50 per cent target for young people in higher education to be abandoned on the grounds that there is not enough money for it. "We are diverting resources in the university sector to the universities that are having to bring these kids up to speed with what they should have learnt in primary and secondary," he said. "And that's why you're moving money away from places like this [Imperial College] to your third-class institutions, because it costs more to teach those kids because they've never been taught."

Dr Knight wrote to Hefce, demanding that Sir Richard be asked to resign. The Campaign for Mainstream Universities (CMU), which represents 33 new universities, most of which are former polytechnics, also wrote a letter seeking an apology or, failing that, Sir Richard's resignation from Hefce. "The issue that exercised CMU was the fact that Sir Richard is a member of the Hefce board and we're very concerned that his comments might reflect Hefce policy," says Colin Matheson, chief executive of CMU.

Other vice-chancellors wondered whether Sir Richard should say such things when he is a member of the board of Hefce, which has a policy of increasing participation in higher education via the 50 per cent target.

Soon after the interview was published in The Financial Times, Sir Richard rang Les Ebdon, the vice-chancellor of Luton, and wrote to the Sir Robin Biggam, chancellor of Luton University, to "clarify" his remarks. But the pressure on him continued, and last week he was forced to issue a grovelling apology. "I would like to put on record my regrets over my references to 'third-class institutions' and to Luton and to apologise," he wrote in an e-mail to Ebdon. "I was trying to emphasise that universities are different and need to be treated differently, but my language was ill-considered and clumsy, and I am sorry to have caused offence."

Luton is pleased with the apology. Ebdon describes it as fulsome and generous, though he remains puzzled as to why Sir Richard described Luton as having maths students. Like many new universities, Luton does not teach maths. "I imagine he was trying to make a case for Imperial College and got rather carried away," he says.

At the same time, Luton is keen to emphasize that it really does cost more to educate access students who come without the A-levels and the other advantages of better-off students. Hefce has carried out its own survey into just how much more it costs, and the answer is 35 per cent. But universities taking such students receive only 10 per cent more for each of them. That money is vital, according to Ebdon.

He is left wondering whether Sir Richard really does agree with that 10 per cent premium, and with the 50 per cent participation target, because, from his reported comments, it sounds as though he doesn't. "What is the collective responsibility of members of the Hefce board?" he asks.

The issue was expected to be raised at today's meeting of Hefce in Manchester. It had been made clear to David Young, the Hefce chairman, that, if an apology wasn't forthcoming from Sir Richard, there would be more complaints. But the unconditional apology appears to have done the trick. "I would say that draws a line under the matter," says Dr Knight. "So long as Les Ebdon at Luton is satisfied, that is the end of the matter."

People are shaking their heads, however, about the way that the Hefce board conducts itself. "Hefce would to well to ponder Sir Richard's comments," says Roger Brown, director of Southampton Institute. "On the face of it, I don't know which is the more worrying: his evident prejudice against certain kinds of institutions or his seeming lack of knowledge of the system whithin which he is operating.

It has taken more than a month, and loud complaints from the new university vice-chancellors, for the dispute to be resolved. The CMU says that initially it did not receive satisfaction when it complained to David Young, who is on the board at Hefce. It was told that Sir Richard had been speaking in a personal capacity.

Michael Driscoll, the vice-chancellor of Middlesex University and chairman of the CMU, demanded an interview with Young. After this meeting, Sir Richard sent his e-mail apology.

This is not the first time that Sir Richard has got into hot water for speaking his mind. The other occasion was when he said that the top universities like Imperial College should charge fees of up to £15,000 to cover the true costs of higher education. His outspokenness was embarrassing to the Government, coming as it did in the run-up to the decision to charge up to a more modest £3,000.

But it is beginning to look as though Sir Richard is a maverick who will not be tamed. A plain-speaking Yorkshireman who created GlaxoSmithKline, the world's biggest pharmaceutical company, he makes no bones about his irritation with university funding and the way universities have, traditionally, been run.

"Everything we do is loss-making and it's just crazy," he told me when I interviewed him two years ago. "If we could charge the full economic cost for teaching and research, then universities would be a lot healthier."

l.hodges@independent.co.uk

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