The hunk and Queen Mary

The charismatic Adrian Smith heads a London college - and he's telling the Government what to do, says Lucy Hodges
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The Independent Online

Adrian Smith has a big smile on his face, and reason to be pleased with himself. Charles Clarke has bought his ideas for the reform of maths teaching, and Professor Smith, 57, who is also principal of Queen Mary, University of London, is basking in the knowledge that the Education Secretary has accepted the need for a radical overhaul of a subject in crisis.

Adrian Smith has a big smile on his face, and reason to be pleased with himself. Charles Clarke has bought his ideas for the reform of maths teaching, and Professor Smith, 57, who is also principal of Queen Mary, University of London, is basking in the knowledge that the Education Secretary has accepted the need for a radical overhaul of a subject in crisis.

It is extremely gratifying to him that the Government has decided to boost financial incentives for maths graduates to train as teachers because this was something he asked for. "Golden hellos" for maths teacher trainees are being increased by £1,000 (up from £4,000). So are training bursaries (up from £6,000), and advanced-skills maths teachers will have the cap on their salaries lifted. "It's a very good start," says Professor Smith. "These are big percentages. If you're talking in terms of the image and profile, when you get press headlines that teachers can earn up to £60,000, you are sort of beginning to win."

It is not often that academics, or even principals or vice-chancellors, are able to influence public policy in this way. And it is testament to Professor Smith's savvy that he has succeeded. The man in charge of Queen Mary understands the importance of using the press. He ensured that, when his hard-hitting report on maths was published earlier this year, it hit the headlines. He cultivated journalists assiduously beforehand, fanning their curiosity, giving out morsels of information and generally being genial to those who went to see him - but holding back the big financial incentive story until the last minute.

This availability has not traditionally been the way of vice-chancellors, but Professor Smith is one of a new breed. Tall, with long, Sixties-style hair and trendy dark shirts, he does not conform to the public stereotype of the anoraked maths professor. He is, in the words of one of Queen Mary's women professors, a bit of a hunk. His office is covered in modern art, John Hoyland and Terry Frost. He is very much the metropolitan vice-chancellor.

It goes without saying that he is a clever chap. After Teignmouth grammar school in Devon, where he did pure maths, applied maths, further maths and physics (as well as Russian), he attended the University of Cambridge. He was well-taught and believes that everyone should receive exciting and rigorous maths teaching. That's why he is pleased that Clarke has accepted another of his recommendations - the appointment of a maths tsar. "There has been a prevailing philosophy in the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) that has not put a lot of focus on subject-specific issues," he says. "The brutal fact is that mathematics is different. It is special in its underpinning of other subjects, in its profound nature, and the fact that endless studies show that if people didn't get their maths at school, their employment and other chances are screwed. It's life-enhancing. It's fundamental to science and engineering and economic well-being."

What shocked Professor Smith - and what shocked Clarke too - was that no one was in charge of maths at the DfES. If there had been a maths tsar at the department when the sixth-form exam reform was introduced, we would not have had the new AS-level maths course that one-third of students failed, he thinks. "If there had been a maths tsar in the DfES they would have said, 'Stop, you cannot do this.'"

Professor Smith had a glittering academic career in maths before going into university management. After Cambridge, he was made the first-ever lecturer in statistics at the Maths Institute in Oxford, but he didn't like it. Appointed a professor at the University of Nottingham by the age of 30, he eventually ended up at Imperial College, as head of the maths department.

Higher-education observers agree that he has made an impression on Queen Mary in the same way that he has stamped his mark on maths. As a college of the University of London situated in the East End, Queen Mary has always had difficulty competing with the likes of UCL and King's. It does not have the reputation of those colleges and is not able to attract the same calibre of student. But Professor Smith claims to be changing that.

When he arrived at the college it was punching way below its weight, he says. Some of the reasons were historical. There was the merger with Westfield College in 1989, followed by the merger of the London and Barts medical schools into Queen Mary's School of Medicine. The result was that the college virtually quadrupled in size. "Mergers create disturbance and loss of identity," he explains. "You have to forge a new identity and a new self-confidence. The place hadn't really grown during the Nineties as many others had done." Morale was low and Queen Mary was losing its share of the international-student market.

The new principal immediately set about the extremely unpopular task of rationalising the newly merged medical school. His first task was to sort out its finances, which were dire, he says.

At the end of the Nineties and into the new millennium, the college was running annual deficits of £3.5m, which were totally unsustainable. The merged medical school was responsible for a large chunk of that, so the school had to undergo a complete restructuring to focus on strengths in research and to get out of areas in which it could not compete, according to Professor Smith. That meant a lot of staff had to go.

"There was huge, careful, legally watertight process that involved setting up formal redundancy committees," he says. Just over 100 people went, some to work in the NHS, others as full-time teachers; the rest quit the system. It was an extremely painful business, he admits, probably the biggest restructuring done in an old university in one go.

But it turned round the finances. Queen Mary is now running surpluses of £3.5 to £5m. And it is building like mad. A stylish new medical school designed by Will Alsop and made almost entirely of glass is rising in Whitechapel. It will contain the Centre of the Cell, which, the hype says, will be a unique, interactive science centre for local schoolchildren, parents and teachers, and is believed to be the first such science centre within a medical school.

In addition, the college is trying to create its own campus on the Mile End Road. Instead of being a disparate collection of buildings around the Victorian hub, the area has been landscaped and halls of residence built along the canal to make the place more appealing to students.

It seems to have worked. Queen Mary says it has seen an increase of 36 per cent in applications in the last three years.

Smith has also established links with Chinese universities. A new undergraduate course gives students two years in China and two years in east London. He has attracted new professors but Queen Mary has a way to go in competing in the research assessment exercise (RAE). The Independent's league table shows that its position fell from 42nd in 1996 to 45th in 2001.

The college has a particularly good reputation in the humanities. Its English department, containing stars like Jacqueline Rose and Lisa Jardine, is especially highly regarded. So is history. But the sciences have not fared quite so well. Chemistry received only a 3a score in the RAE, which meant it ceased to attract government funding for research. Therefore, undergraduate chemistry has been abandoned in the same way as it has ceased to exist at King's College London and Swansea University.

"If you have subjects that are running deficits, it's unsustainable," says Professor Smith firmly. "There's a national problem here." He believes the Government should take action to ensure that undergraduate chemistry doesn't die out in too many universities because it will be difficult to revive.

Despite the axing of chemistry and a lacklustre RAE performance in medicine and electrical engineering, Professor Smith thinks he has succeeded in giving the college new self-confidence. Before his reign, it was physically grubby and lacked a good image of itself. Now it is serious but traditional, rigorous but edgy, he says.

l.hodges@independent.co.uk

QUEEN MARY IN A NUTSHELL

History: Once known as the Victorian People's Palace (to educate East Enders).

Ambience: In the multi-cultural East End, it attracts more Asian applicants than most.

Vital statistics: A big, multi-faculty college of the University of London, it has more than 10,000 students.

Buildings: At its heart is the Victorian Queen's Building in Mile End Road, a wonderful monument with an entrance hall in lurid orange and blue. The glass medical school is rising in Whitechapel.

Strengths: A sparkling humanities faculty, with star academics Jacqueline Rose and Lisa Jardine (English), and Peter Hennessy and Tristram Hunt (history).

Weaknesses: Undergrad chemistry has been axed.

Glittering alumni: Dr Barnardo, Malcolm Bradbury and Lord Robert Winston.

Who's the boss? Maths expert Adrian Smith.

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