Sound and vision

The new man running St Hugh's College, Oxford, is nothing like the stuffy academics of old, discovers Lucy Hodges - he even has his own radio show
Click to follow

Andrew Dilnot, the new principal of St Hugh's College Oxford, is passionate about numbers. It drives him mad that people who are supposed to know better - journalists, politicians and civil servants - have so little understanding of numbers. He seizes a copy of the White Paper on higher education by way of illustration. Page 17 contains a graph showing the gap between those going to university from the top social classes and those attending from the lowest groups. The gap is a real problem, he says, but the White Paper maintains that it has become wider and makes much of that fact. The truth is rather different. Someone from a low social group has a much better chance of going to university now than 40 years ago. They used to have a one in 25 chance; now it's almost one in five. Department for Education and Skills, please note.

Dilnot, who took over as principal last autumn, is part of a new generation of outward-looking, meritocratic leaders taking the helm of British colleges and universities. The former director of the authoritative think tank, the Institute of Fiscal Studies, he is the first from a comprehensive school to be made principal of an Oxford college. At 43, he is also one of the youngest. Like Frances Cairncross, the management editor of the The Economist who is expected to become master of Exeter College, Oxford, Dilnot is a semi-public figure from outside the cloistered world of higher education, used to holding forth on Radio 4's Analysis programme and giving considered comments on Gordon Brown's budgets. This autumn a new series of his numbers programme More or Less begins on Tuesday afternoons. So he may begin to play an important part in representing higher education to the wider public.

Awarded a CBE in 2000 for services to economics and economic policy, Dilnot joins Oxford at a critical moment. There has been much speculation about the future of England's ancient universities: whether they really can compete with their American counterparts in research and whether they are well run. The interim report from Richard Lambert, former editor of the Financial Times, on the links between universities and business was a case in point. Identifying "a general sense of unease about the direction of both universities" it said that some people believed that Oxford and Cambridge would benefit from being more businesslike in the way that they conduct their affairs. Oxford had inadequate financial management systems, and, like Cambridge, it faced "critical and unresolved questions about its future strategy."

Dilnot is a bit bemused by all this. First, he doesn't feel uneasy about the university's direction. Second, he doesn't know what Richard Lambert is talking about when he says Oxford's financial management systems are lacking. Third, he doesn't know what it means when he refers to Oxbridge needing to be run in a more businesslike way. If he means that Oxford should do away with democracy, Dilnot does not agree. "Democracy is not time-wasting," he says. "It is only time-wasting if there is a lack of trust. You have to bring people with you. If you're right about the direction of change, it's worth persuading people because then they will want to do it."

Without being defensive, he says that people in Oxford are well aware that things are changing very quickly. The level of government funding has changed and it's a real challenge to attract the best staff, he adds. "I am an economist and I know how difficult it is to attract the best people for economics and law when there are so many alternative avenues of employment."

There is a big question about the balance between undergraduate and postgraduate education in a university like Oxford, he says, and about how you maintain both. "In Oxford we're still learning what to do about taught postgraduate courses where the demand is growing very rapidly," he says. He would like graduates better integrated into the intellectual life of the university. One idea is to have "subject families" whereby senior and junior academics, post-doc researchers, Ph.D and Masters students as well as undergraduates are more engaged with one another. Post-docs might be involved in teaching, senior academics in training younger teachers. You would create a more vertically-integrated structure. "We want the community to be filled with intellectual pursuit," he says. "I would like to go anywhere and sit down and find that conversation was not just about football scores but about epistemology or diffraction."

Would Richard Lambert approve of the way he runs St Hugh's? "I hope so," he says. "Most of the direct interaction with business is done at the departmental rather than the college level. One of the things that I am looking at very seriously is how we maximise the use of our physical assets when the students are on vacation. We have to remember that the heart of what we do is academic but one of the largest assets is our buildings so we have to ensure we use them." The income that a college like St Hugh's can generate from student rents, and the staging of conferences, goes towards subsidising an expensive education, ensuring that students have tutorials containing only one or two people.

Formerly a women-only institution, St Hugh's went co-educational in the mid-Eighties after an intensely-fought debate on the merits of single sex colleges. Today it's as though that debate never happened. The college is now successfully mixed, coming about halfway up the Norrington table for its degree results. In the old days when it was all-female it languished around the bottom.

Dilnot, whose wife was a student at St Hugh's (they met when they were undergraduates at Oxford), is enjoying his new role. A thoroughly unstuffy man, he says he likes running a college with a long tradition of unstuffiness. In the short term he wants to do two things: get the finances on a firm footing and ensure that St Hugh's becomes really exciting intellectually.

And, if this unassuming and clever man, who is a practising Christian, can make his mark at St Hugh's he will become much sought after by larger institutions. This is unlikely to be his last job.