The academic globetrotter

Sir Colin Campbell was determined to make Nottingham into a global player. Has he succeeded?
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The Independent Online

Last week, Alan Johnson, the higher education minister, hopped on a train to Nottingham to visit the university that has done more than any other to internationalise itself. Nottingham has more overseas students than any other university in the country. During the 1990s, it blazed a trail as the first university overtly to espouse the new managerialist philosophy of more centralised control and less autonomy for academics. At the same time, it became adept at raising money.

Last week, Alan Johnson, the higher education minister, hopped on a train to Nottingham to visit the university that has done more than any other to internationalise itself. Nottingham has more overseas students than any other university in the country. During the 1990s, it blazed a trail as the first university overtly to espouse the new managerialist philosophy of more centralised control and less autonomy for academics. At the same time, it became adept at raising money.

The architect of Nottingham's success is Sir Colin Campbell, a Scot and the country's youngest vice-chancellor when he was appointed at the age of 43 - and a controversial figure still. "He is a one-man show," says one higher education expert. In other words, Sir Colin, now 59, is very much in charge at Nottingham. What he says goes. Interviewing him is like talking to an excited private-sector entrepreneur. Words spew forth in an unending stream as, without pausing for breath, he whistles through his university's achievements, calling for documents from his staff, getting up and down from his chair, and giving the impression he is in a frantic rush. "He is no easy conversationalist," says the expert. "He's not a lovable fellow."

Nottingham has grown hugely since Sir Colin arrived - up from 8,000 students in 1989 to 30,000 today. A new Jubilee campus, complete with lake, ducks and a heron, has been created at a cost of £50m. It contains three halls of residence, a new business school, a library and several academic departments. And, of course, its design by Sir Michael Hopkins and partners has won awards.

As a result, perhaps, Nottingham has become one of the most popular universities in the United Kingdom, sought after by young high-fliers attracted by its research ratings and green campus within reach of a city. Its position in the global marketplace is a direct result of the vice-chancellor's vision. Today, it has its own campus in Malaysia and is building a spanking new campus in China, the first British university to venture so far with the Chinese.

Sir Colin decided to focus on China after a trip there in 1997. The university has thrown itself into establishing links, setting up a China Policy Institute, electing a Chinese national as the university chancellor and opening an office in Shanghai. In 10 years, student numbers have grown from 80 to 1,000. The vice-chancellor now visits China between four and six times a year.

When he arrived at Nottingham, Sir Colin decided that the university needed to become globally competitive. "We didn't choose to be second division," he says. "We chose to compete."

Today, the university has 5,000 international students, which is more than 20 per cent of its total number of students. It is happy with that number, believing that it would be a mistake to go above 25 per cent. Some critics believe that Sir Colin concentrates too much on world domination at the expense of the domestic market. Asked whether he enjoys the international more than the home dimension, he says: "What I do here is make sure we choose the right professors. I have missed only one interview in all my time here."

A driven man, Sir Colin is not afraid to do the unpopular thing and to espouse unpopular causes. And he has made enemies. Ten years ago he hit the headlines after a politics professor committed suicide. Professor David Regan left several letters critical of the university and was known to feel victimised for being asked to vacate his house on campus. "David was saying things have gone very wrong at Nottingham and generally at British universities," his wife was quoted as saying. "They have become too centralised, and he made it clear that vice-chancellors have too much power."

Some observers at the time thought that incident would damage the vice-chancellor's reputation for ever. "A lot of people said he would never get a knighthood," reflects one expert. "But he did."

The university world is conservative and academics favour the status quo. Sir Colin's interest in top-up fees - and ensuring that individual students make a bigger contribution to their tuition in future - raised eyebrows, certainly in the days before the notion became accepted in higher education policy circles. That is why he is accused by some of being Thatcherite. He would rather the Government had opted for a top-up fee of £5,000 than one of £3,000, because that would have created a more dynamic marketplace. Being the clever fellow that he is, however, he links the higher charges to access. And he evidently cares about the access issue.

Nottingham is planning to spend one-third of the money it gets from top-up fees on giving disadvantaged students access to higher education. "The biggest failure of British universities is that the working-class composition of higher education has not changed materially since the Second World War," Sir Colin says.

The lecturers' union, the Association of University Teachers (AUT), is no friend of the vice-chancellor, however. "The vc won't meet with us," says Sandi Golbey, treasurer of the local AUT branch. That matters, she says, because it means that Sir Colin is out of touch with the lecturers' feelings about the appraisals and performance-related pay that are being introduced at the university and are seen as controversial.

Not surprisingly, Sir Colin disagrees. It is common for vice-chancellors to delegate responsibility for trade union matters to a pro-vice-chancellor, and that is what he has done, he says. "The union was opposed to the university's plans for appraisal and performance-related pay and the other unions were entirely supportive," he points out. "The AUT didn't have an alternative to suggest. They were just against it." But he will become involved in the talks to apply performance-related pay to academics, he says.

The students, on the other hand, are keen on Sir Colin because he supports their events - by turning up to the ceremony that marked the students' union acquiring fair trade status, for example. The relationship between the union and the administration is one of the best in the country, according to Russ Davidson, its president. "We think it's better to be sitting round a table with them negotiating rather than standing outside demonstrating," he says. "They take our concerns on board. We don't always agree, but we can state our case."

The question is whether Sir Colin will succeed in taking Nottingham into the top league of global players. Some critics think not, pointing to the fact that he has not managed to push it up The Times league table. This year it was number 14; seven years ago it was at number 13; five years ago it was in 11th position. One commentator says: "I predict that when he leaves, Nottingham will sink back into what it was before - a university that is not an exciting place."

Inevitably, the vice-chancellor would dispute that. He puts a lot of faith in the initiatives he has set in train, particularly the joining of Universitas 21, the global network of top universities, which he thinks will put Nottingham in a position to tap the international marketplace in e-learning.

l.hodges@independent.co.uk

NOTTINGHAM IN A NUTSHELL

Vital statistics: Big civic university with 30,000 students and a good academic reputation. Applicants hammer on the doors ­ 10 for every place. It is popular because of the lovely campus and because it's near a big city, with groovy clubs nearby.

Ambience: Green and leafy with sweeping lawns, lakes and ducks ­ surprising when you think it's in gritty Nottingham. The new Jubilee campus, one mile away from University Park campus, has interesting, wooden buildings, three halls of residence and a library created in a spiral, like the Guggenheim museum in New York.

Added value: New and bigger business school being built on the Jubilee campus. New swimming pool. New D H Lawrence Centre containing theatre and galleries.

Glittering alumni: D H Lawrence; John Monks, TUC general secretary;Jim Moir, controller of BBC Radio 2; Tim Martin, founder of JD Wetherspoon pubs.

Glittering academics: Sir Peter Mansfield, Emeritus Professor of Physics, who won the 2003 Nobel Prize for medicine; Philip Cowley, the expert on backbench revolts; Professor Keith Campbell, who worked on cloning Dolly the sheep.

Who's the boss? The legal philosopher Sir Colin Campbell, the brainy Scot who is also Her Majesty's First Commissioner for Judicial Appointments, which means you can complain to him if you think you should be a judge and aren't yet. LH

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