'There's a real buzz about it'

When Bob Burgess took over Leicester University, it was in the doldrums. Now, its future is brighter. Lucy Hodges meets the man who must face mounting challenges in turning it around
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The Independent Online

Five years ago, Leicester University was a solid, unremarkable civic university that performed all right but was not making waves. It came 40th in the research assessment exercise, was in the red and had to enter the clearing system in 13 subjects to recruit students. Its great claims to fame were that the poet Philip Larkin once worked in the university library and that Sir Alec Jeffreys discovered DNA genetic fingerprinting there. It also had a fine reputation for space science and English local history, but was otherwise relatively undistinguished. Bob Burgess, the new vice-chancellor, was determined to change that.

Five years ago, Leicester University was a solid, unremarkable civic university that performed all right but was not making waves. It came 40th in the research assessment exercise, was in the red and had to enter the clearing system in 13 subjects to recruit students. Its great claims to fame were that the poet Philip Larkin once worked in the university library and that Sir Alec Jeffreys discovered DNA genetic fingerprinting there. It also had a fine reputation for space science and English local history, but was otherwise relatively undistinguished. Bob Burgess, the new vice-chancellor, was determined to change that.

The signs are that he has made great strides since 1999. For a start, he has increased the university's income. Turnover now stands at £155m compared with £122m. Income generated from conferences, for example, has increased by 29 per cent. That has been done by encouraging people to think how they might bring new customers to conferences, says Burgess. Two years ago, Leicester had a £2.5m surplus; this year it is closer to £1m. But at least it is now in the black. Burgess persuaded staff to think how they might reduce costs and generate income. "We encouraged people across the whole university to see how they could play their part," he says.

The vice-chancellor is talking here not just about academics but about staff in residences, conferences and catering. "It's about how you encourage people, wherever they are located in the university, to see that they have a role to play in making it a dynamic institution," says Burgess. "Good ideas don't just reside with one group of people. Anyone can have a good idea and it's down to the institution to help them develop and champion it."

Leicester has introduced a central system for allocating resources. That replaces a system whereby departments received funding according to what they got in the past. Now, senior staff take corporate decisions based on what is in the best interests of the institution. The university still goes into clearing - but for fewer subjects, Burgess says. A new raft of appointments has been made, including a professor of e-learning, who starts this autumn. And the university has become more popular with students. The number of applicants has increased, and the university registered the second-largest increase across the Midlands this year.

"There's a real buzz about the place," says Ather Mirza, the university's press officer. It has taken a great deal of hard work. A supremely modest man, Burgess works long hours and is used to juggling a lot of balls. He is good with people, and takes the trouble to meet the lecturers' union, the Association of University Teachers, personally, rather than delegate the job - as Sir Colin Campbell does at Nottingham. He is persuasive in argument and has a clear idea of where he wants Leicester to go. He wants, for example, to make the university connect much more closely with the local community, and he wants to ensure that it is pre-eminent in postgraduate education. Five years ago, Leicester was third in the UK for numbers of postgraduate students and had no graduate school. Today it is number one for taught postgraduate courses - and has a graduate school. More graduates bring in money because postgraduates pay higher fees than undergraduates.

But the emphasis on graduate education also puts the university on the map. A huge effort has been made to bring the university closer to the local people via a new institute for lifelong learning. Jackie Dunne, the new head of the institute, has been encouraging departments to put on short courses and conferences and work with companies and the community. "I think a research-intensive university needs to be able to deliver a high quality experience in terms of research and teaching programmes on campus, but it also needs to link closely with the community in which it is located," says Burgess. A raft of foundation degrees is being rolled out, and links are being made with organisations in the region.

A network has been set up connecting Leicester and two higher education institutes with 21 further education and sixth-form colleges from Birmingham to Scunthorpe. Nor are the arts being neglected. Burgess has made contact with sculptors, and an annual exhibition now takes place in the university's botanic gardens. "It's a way to add another dimension, which brings in groups of people to the university who otherwise wouldn't come," he says. "It makes the university more interesting."

Next year the Royal British Society of Sculptors is to hold its centennial exhibition at Leicester. The university is heaving with new buildings, or plans for them. A £300m development plan has been drawn up by architects who considered what the university should look like in the future. That in turn was based on the kind of place Leicester decided it wanted to be. Part of the plan entails creating a central square for pedestrians where a car park exists at present. The library is being doubled in size to accommodate the increased student body and to be fit for the new century. The chemistry and archaeology departments have been refurbished, and a £20m biomedical research building is about to open. A new space-design centre is up and running. The question is how all this is being financed.

After some persuasion from the vice-chancellor, Nicholas Corah, a local businessman, has agreed to run a £20m fundraising campaign and is busy making contact with potential major donors. Letters are being written to individuals, presentations are being made to companies and all the stops are being pulled out to try to get wealthy people to give to Leicester. "It is important, and it is what UK universities have got to get into," says Burgess.

All this progress has definitely been good for Leicester, its staff and students. But no one can relax. Although Leicester has climbed the league tables, it has not done as well as Burgess would have liked. In The Independent's research league table, it has actually fallen from 42nd to 44th place. In 1999 it was 34th in The Times's league table and 26th in the Financial Times's. Today, it is at positions 29 and 18 respectively, a definite but not an earth-shattering improvement. Moreover, although its finances have improved, the university has had to contend with new difficulties created by changes in the research assessment exercise (RAE) funding. Departments scoring a grade 4 now receive less funding than previously and those scoring 3a receive nothing. That means that all universities are having to work harder to stand still.

As a university with a relatively high proportion of 4s (it had 12 grade 4s and 12 grade 5s in the 2001 RAE), Leicester was hit by the reforms. "It's challenging because each time you feel you have turned a corner it only needs the funding council to change the variables for new difficulties to arise," says Burgess. The university had to decide what to do with the departments scoring 3a and 4. It has carried out rigorous internal assessments of all of them, and that exercise is continuing. It could mean some ceasing to exist as independent entities. One department to receive a 4 was chemistry, a subject that has been closed at a number of universities for lack of students and for lack of stellar ratings. But Leicester is trying to preserve chemistry. "We have said that in one form or another chemistry has got to stay," says Burgess. "That doesn't mean it has to stay in the exact form that it is in at the moment but it does mean that chemistry will stay. It could go in with something else, or you could think about providing for it on a regional basis. There are a number of options. It's important to make sure that chemistry covers its costs."

Leicester is also looking hard at geology, another subject that students shun. Academics are being asked to examine whether geology can be run as a lifelong learning course rather than as a conventional undergraduate degree, or as a service that can be sold to industry. "It's about thinking creatively how a subject can continue," says Burgess. "It may be that in the course of doing that you reduce the number of staff involved." And that presents another set of problems - but not ones Burgess shies away from. Perhaps the greatest problem that the university faces is an image one, arguably caused by the fact that the city is somewhat featureless. Burgess has been making commendable efforts to overcome that with his new initiatives. But Leicester is not one of the cool universities like Leeds, Nottingham and, increasingly, Newcastle.

Government policy emphasising greater research selectivity does not help either. Leicester is not one of the favoured few able to attract the really large sums of research money. And that makes it harder to recruit academics. "You have to keep asking the question, 'What shape of university do you want?' and take action accordingly," says Burgess. "If you dive in and start taking out whole subject areas, what sort of institution do you have at the end of it? I don't think it can be done in that way."

l.hodges@independent.co.uk

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